No need for future shock

David Baker argues that forward-thinking higher education providers see opportunities, not unremitting gloom, ahead

July 17, 2008

If Universities Secretary John Denham was already concerned about the future size and shape of higher education, reading Universities UK's latest report must have left him feeling seriously apprehensive ("Buckle up for a rough ride, UUK tells sector", Times Higher Education, 10 July).

The report identifies potential opportunities and threats over the next 20 years. The sector faces multiple challenges, it warns, including a demographic downturn, competition from abroad, advances in learning technology and greater involvement of employers and the private sector in the funding and delivery of higher education. Unfortunately, the focus is more on perceived threats to the status quo than on opportunities for positive change.

Three scenarios outlined in the report convey unremitting gloom. Although the author points out that these are not forecasts, but rather descriptions of what could occur, it is hard not to feel we are being urged to batten down the hatches as storm clouds gather.

Possible threats far outnumber prospective opportunities in the analyses that accompany each scenario. The common themes of this risk assessment paint a picture of a sector that fears change through growing competition, subsequent falling standards, loss of reputation and, horror of horrors, more discriminating students.

Such a bleak view of the sector's future comes from paying too much attention to the rear-view mirror. The report is overly concerned with how an outdated notion of higher education might be affected by the pressures of the modern world. Looking at each scenario in turn with a more open-minded and enlightened view would identify at least as many opportunities as threats.

The first scenario presents a future world in which institutions have been slow to adapt to demographic changes and have failed to identify new sources of students. We are told one major threat is that some institutions "may not be well placed to react quickly enough to the change pattern of student demand and could become unviable". Some may be tempted to lower entry standards.

One must question how realistic this is. Institutional managers are already aware of the trends identified by the report and are taking action. In a sharper market, poor service won't keep customers. The human-scaled, newer or more specialist institutions represented by GuildHE, which the author may consider most at risk, are forward-thinking enough to capitalise on the opportunities that changes present.

In the second scenario, new higher education providers - including some from the private sector - target niche areas and offer low-cost courses, causing a surge in competition. There would be fewer large institutions and more small and specialist providers.

The author seems to view this as worse than the first scenario, identifying eight threats and just four opportunities. Top of the risk list is potential damage to the sector's reputation from the extension of quality assurance systems to private providers. Fears voiced over encroachment by the private sector seem out of proportion. The mix of private and public institutions has been standard in the US for decades, without loss of reputation. In the UK, universities have for some time been validating the awards of private providers. GuildHE has three such providers in its membership.

Finally, a third scenario sees employer and employee-led demand for part-time courses dominating, with many courses co-funded by employers and delivered via technology, more private providers entering the market and some institutions merging with further education colleges to form hybrid institutions akin to US community colleges.

Once again, certain aspects of this scenario seem highly improbable while others are positive developments. Institutions, students, employers and the economy have a lot to gain if the Government persuades employers to play a greater role in funding and delivering higher education.

In summary, the report correctly points out that the future sector will likely feature a combination of factors described in the three scenarios. But it fails to recognise that the most likely result - greater diversity and more choice and opportunities for both students and academics - is highly desirable.

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