Stop England's universities 'dominating' tertiary sector

King’s College London professor and member of House of Lords says England 'extraordinary' in world terms for 'one-size-fits-all' emphasis on universities

November 24, 2016
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Fit for purpose? ‘I don’t know anywhere in the world that is as “one-size-fits-all” as we are…All our universities do everything and all we have are universities,’ said Baroness Wolf

England must create high-prestige, two-year technical qualifications rather than allowing universities to “dominate the whole scene” to an extent unparalleled in the world, according to the influential author of a report.

Alison Wolf, Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management at King’s College London and a crossbench member of the House of Lords, told Times Higher Education that “if we don’t have higher technical qualifications then nobody is ever going to want to do anything other than increasingly watered down academic qualifications” at a higher cost to the public purse.

Baroness Wolf calls for a change of approach in a report published by the Education Policy Institute this week, titled Remaking tertiary education: can we create a system that is fair and fit for purpose?

She told THE: “Universities, which are not the best place to be doing them [higher technical qualifications], because they are not close to local labour markets, are dominating the whole scene and their incentives are always to offer three-year degrees at maximum fees.

“In my opinion that is not only economically inefficient but it also means you don’t get these technical degree qualifications which, for example, Germany and the Netherlands have.”

She also said: “I don’t know anywhere in the world that is as 'one-size-fits-all' as we are. We are absolutely extraordinary. All our universities do everything and all we have are universities.”

However, recent policy measures have not taken the direction advocated by Baroness Wolf. George Osborne, the former chancellor, opted to abolish student number controls with effect from 2015, allowing universities to expand.

Baroness Wolf said that although that policy “sounded very progressive”, it had been a “stupid decision”.

She said that “the more low income you are, the more likely you are to go to a low [entry] tariff institution, the more likely you are to end up doing a qualification which doesn’t get you much money – and you still pay £9,000 a year for it”.

Baroness Wolf dismissed the idea that measures in the government’s Higher Education and Research Bill to encourage private providers to enter the sector would encourage diversity of provision in a positive way. She added that “although Jo Johnson genuinely wants it to encourage innovative and different degrees, there’s no reason why it [the bill] would…How do you make money as a university if you’re small and new? You offer more business degrees.”

The report, co-authored with Gerard Domínguez-Reig and Peter Sellen of the Education Policy Institute, calls for the creation of “a financial entitlement which is held by the individual, and can be used for tertiary education of any sort, whenever the individual wishes”.

It adds: “If students held financial entitlements under their own control, institutions’ incentives would change. In order to reverse the decline in sub-degree provision, and encourage take-up of two-year courses, the government must also act to recreate a national system of sub-degree tertiary awards which can be offered in further education colleges as well as universities.”

Baroness Wolf suggested that a system of higher technical qualifications supported by the government would be attractive if combined with a funding system that allowed individuals to return to study and top up their skills over their career.

“I think people would take it like a shot,” she said.

john.morgan@tesglobal.com

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