The recent political weaponisation of tuition fees and student loans in the UK has triggered critical scrutiny of the costs, returns and even the relevance of going to university. That, in turn, has opened up wider questions around the workings of the country’s fragmented post-school education system.
The House of Lords recently announced a review of the economics of higher education, further education and vocational training, presenting the opportunity to develop a more comprehensive approach to the full range of tertiary education. This should start with a realisation that equating higher education with a full-time university experience for school leavers – as ministers and others are prone to do – misses the explosion in the possibilities of and needs for higher-level learning throughout life. The rapidly-expanding alternatives to traditional university programmes range from apprenticeships to Moocs, and preferences stretch from learning-while-earning to in-career professional development.
The tendency has been to regard the newcomers to this system as direct competitors and threats to the university establishment. In fact, they represent massive extensions to the choices available. National regulatory and funding policies, while purporting to promote learner choice, have, in practice, protected the established university model and constrained the alternatives. This has created an entrenched hierarchy of educational pathways, with minimal mobility through and between them.
These divisions are exacerbated by prioritisation of “academic excellence” over “vocational skills”: something not seen, for example, in Germany, the Netherlands or Denmark. Successive UK governments have responded to this disparity by promoting university status and title for almost all providers of higher-level learning. This has confused perceptions of the university brand and distorted the missions both of “alternative” providers and established universities. At the same time, a rigid regulatory and funding system has constrained attempts by innovative providers to develop new approaches that cut across the systems.
The UK needs to treat the full breadth of higher tertiary education as an open ecosystem, and then to establish a single, comprehensive policy and funding infrastructure that empowers learners and encourages innovation. This should start by merging the legacy mix of learner funding schemes into a single framework of loan-backed “personal learning accounts”. These should incorporate current higher education fee loans, further education loans, career development loans and maintenance loans.
Taxpayer support should be focused on the public benefits of tertiary education, through provision that addresses social inclusion and local and sectoral workforce development needs. It can also encourage entry to careers such as teaching, nursing, policing and social care. This might extend to assuring minimum levels of educational provision in economically deprived areas, as part of regional or city deal programmes.
Another important element in the policy should be to encourage employers to invest in workforce learning and skills development. This could be done, for example, by expanding the apprenticeship levy scheme (via which large firms contribute to the cost of providing apprenticeships), through tax incentives for in-house education and training, or by topping up the personal learning accounts of key staff.
This should be underpinned by unifying the tertiary education regulatory and policy regime within a single oversight body, as is starting to happen in Scotland and Wales. This could then focus on recognising and assuring standards and probity across different learning providers, products and outcomes, rather than trying to direct or second-guess delivery models or the content of provision.
This would establish a genuinely learner-driven system for higher-level tertiary education. Funding through personal learning accounts, augmented by individual, employer and public top-ups, would create viable markets for a more diverse range of provision. Providers would be enabled and challenged to differentiate their offers within a more open market.
It would also encourage innovative cross-system partnerships such as Coventry University’s national network of locally engaged tertiary-level centres and the local learning “family” of different tertiary-level institutions developed by London South Bank University.
This would create more direct and transparent connections between payments for services and benefits received, and a system that is more valued and valuable.
Paul Woodgates is head of higher education at PA Consulting Group and Mike Boxall is a higher education expert at PA.