The big picture show

The White Paper lacks vision: the coalition's short-termism must give way to long-term thinking, Libby Hackett says

June 30, 2011

By this stage, you will have digested the details of the much-delayed White Paper on higher education. As you peruse the fine print, the question I would encourage you to ask is whether the political pressures that caused the delays have led to the wider long-term vision being lost.

As the world around us changes rapidly, the opportunities and challenges facing the UK are global in nature. Universities have a crucial role to play in tackling the issues confronting the government, yet the White Paper does not move beyond the immediate consequences of funding changes and student-number controls. The danger is that with all eyes firmly fixed on the fine details, we risk accepting short-term square pegs for long-term round holes.

Exacerbating this is the fact that the government's wider economic strategy makes little more than a few passing references to the higher education sector. Did you know that a wordsearch for "universities" in the government's The Plan for Growth document returns just 14 matches whereas the NHS gets 55 mentions? A revealing truth.

At University Alliance, we have been considering some of the longer-term challenges facing the sector and the country, including the implications of the "hourglass" projection for the future shape of the labour market. There is extensive evidence from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, among others, which shows that innovative high-tech approaches are the best ways to grow the UK economy.

This means a polarisation of skills needs, with growth at both the high end (graduates) and the low end, alongside a decline in demand for intermediate-level skills - hence the hourglass shape.

Given some of the media coverage of universities recently - and our national obsession with tuition fees - you would be forgiven for thinking that we have too many graduates in the UK and that demand for more will soon come to a grinding halt. I am happy to report, however, that you would be wrong - and our competitors know this.

In his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Obama called on the US to "out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world". And we are all familiar with the eye-watering figures that demonstrate the prioritisation of public investment in higher education and research in many countries that share Obama's vision of what it will take to build an innovation-based, high-tech economy.

Meanwhile, the UK seems to be focusing on the minutiae of its funding and regulatory systems as the rest of the world places the university at the centre of economic policy. But it's not too late...

We would urge the UK's politicians and policymakers to look forwards rather than backwards when they consider how many high-end, innovative, creative graduates we need - those who will create new jobs, not replace old ones. They need to ensure that the upcoming Innovation Strategy puts universities and graduates centre stage. Continuing their current emphasis on apprenticeships and intermediate-level skills will create a skills base that is more pear-shaped than hourglass. With 41 per cent of all UK jobs already based in the knowledge-intensive sectors, a figure that is rapidly rising, what will it take for the coalition to reconsider its vision?

We are at a crossroads as a sector and as a country. Regardless of the politics surrounding them, all universities are working hard to drive economic growth over the next decade and beyond. Universities are chief innovators, here for the long term, and they will find the best way to continue to serve society and drive growth. It is our responsibility to help the government to prepare for the changes that are coming: to work in partnership with others to realise the potential that change offers; and to demonstrate the energy, optimism and world-changing opportunities that are the lifeblood on campus.

We must not forget that the eyes of the world are upon us as we reverse the balance of public and private investment. In a highly competitive, responsive, largely market-driven sector that is about to undergo radical funding changes, we urge government leaders to look beyond the immediate and provide the much-needed economic vision that places universities - and the research and innovation they deliver - at its core.

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