Thinktank advocates ‘national’ and ‘local’ university divide

Former DfE adviser insists proposal is not a return to the days of polytechnics

July 29, 2021
Single alpine path splits in two different directions
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English higher education institutions should be split into “national” and “local” universities to give them a “clearly defined purpose”, a thinktank claims.

The report from the EDSK education and skills thinktank complains that since the tripling of the tuition fee cap in 2012 universities have too often “focused on expanding the most lucrative courses rather than demonstrating a wider commitment to their community or society, yet there is no mechanism or framework that encourages them to do otherwise”.

It complains that this has “contributed to a dearth of higher-level technical courses in this country, leaving students and employers with a set of largely homogenous institutions that are almost indistinguishable in what they offer”.

In response, EDSK – whose director, Tom Richmond, was a ministerial adviser at the Department for Education under Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan – proposes that institutions should be formally designated as national or local universities by 2023-24.

Local universities would focus on local economic growth, social mobility and lifelong learning: they would have no minimum entry requirements and would offer sub-degree and foundation year courses. They would report to “tertiary education commissioners” who would be tasked with ensuring that local universities and further education colleges offered the right mix of academic and technical courses to meet local needs and had the right credit transfer agreements.

Local universities would have their maximum proportion of international students capped at 10 per cent, and would focus on applied research.

National universities, in contrast, would focus on basic research, would only be able to admit students who had GCSEs in English and maths, and could recruit more international students – EDSK suggests a 40 per cent cap. They would not offer sub-degree or foundation courses.

The suggestion of dividing the sector may bring back memories of the pre-1992 system of polytechnics, which were perceived as having suffered in policy and prestige terms compared with older universities.

However, the EDSK report notes that “a small former polytechnic that works with many local employers may also offer a world-class degree course in a specialist area or subject”.

“This recommendation will not prevent such activities either now or in future,” the report says. “Instead, the goal of separating universities into ‘local’ and ‘national’ institutions is to provide an overall framework within which logical decisions can be made about how, when and why the government should fund universities to provide particular degree and sub-degree courses.”

Mr Richmond said that “giving each type of university a clear purpose and set of responsibilities would make the value of HE more apparent to students, employers and local communities”.

“This new approach would also help reassure ministers and taxpayers that all universities are focused on delivering ‘high value’ degrees that are worthy of the billions invested by government in the HE sector every year,” he said.

On the issues of value and quality, the EDSK report says that the shortcomings of graduate earnings data mean they should not be used in policymaking, and it argues that the teaching excellence framework should be scrapped “as it does not provide meaningful or reliable information”.

Instead, it suggests the introduction of a new system of “accredited” and “non-accredited” degrees, with the latter having their fee cap cut to £7,750. To become accredited, a degree would need to be approved by a professional, statutory and regulatory body; supported by one large or five small employers; use external exams designed by an awarding organisation; or be signed off by a local tertiary education commissioner.

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Reader's comments (3)

'indistinguishable in what they offer' - well, that's because they are 'universities'. You can recognize the regional and local contribution of universities without restricting them with labels.
So everyone will become an international university because that's where the money is. Seems like a way of returning to polytechnic, FE and Teacher Training colleges to me. Just need to decide whether that is a good thing or not.... but most will decide not, no surprise there
Another one to save in the "not going to happen" directory. At least nowadays less paper will be wasted since the report will often be read in electronic form.