“This is coal country” reads a 1975 advertisement from the National Coal Board, pitching university scholarships to prospective students.
“The coal industry is thriving in Britain, with reserves to last at least 100 years. For decades to come, coal will continue to supply a substantial share of Britain’s demand for energy. Link your future with the NCB.”
It is easy to scoff when predictions go wrong, but can you honestly say that you have never forecast, in good faith and complete confidence, something that seems risible in retrospect?
It is easily done.
Last week, this column reviewed a paper on higher education written in 2006 by Boris Johnson, who was then shadow universities minister.
In one paragraph, he hails the sector’s global growth trajectory – an enduring point, which supports the continuing case for investment and openness today.
However, Johnson – now prime minister – goes on to note that not all industries are as fortunate: steel, shipping and mining are all in trouble, he writes, and “the internet is wonderful, but it is not that easy to make money from it”. Put that one down to experience.
Technological advance and its impact on higher education provide fertile ground for missteps.
It was not long ago that most of us were overheating about the destructive forces about to be unleashed on universities by massive open online courses. They would be out of business in the bat of a screen-burned eyelid, the argument went.
The quake never came – at least, not in the way or time frame expected.
But any universities ignoring the tectonic shifts that underpinned those predictions do so at their peril. The ground is indeed moving, and with it the way we work and the work we do.
So confidence in universities’ future relies on their long-proven ability to evolve too.
This must include a step change on lifelong learning, a secondary concern for institutions that are focused relentlessly on the full-time, 18-year-old undergraduate student.
Funding systems tend to be built around this traditional model, and there is a perception of lifelong learning as a luxury good – both from an individual’s perspective and that of the taxpayer.
But if it was ever true that studying later in life, and perhaps part-time, was about retirees whiling away their time, then that’s as risible an idea today as the notion that the British coal industry is a good bet for a safe and rewarding career.
Lifelong learning is instrumental in the fight to maintain productivity, and economic and social inclusion.
It is a shift to which some have already responded. The Skills Future programme in Singapore is one example, channelling additional funding into training for Singaporeans who find their skill sets and careers stalling or redundant.
Individual universities have taken steps too – the National University of Singapore’s “20-year enrolment”, for instance, allows graduates to return to top up and add new skills as required.
And in England, the recent Augar review of higher education funding suggested an individual lifelong learning allowance that could be used for vocational or academic courses from levels 4 to 6 at any stage, full- or part-time.
There is no panacea for the disruption caused by technological advance, and reskilling for new jobs is not always a straightforward or linear process.
Case studies have shown how difficult it can be to retrain and place large numbers of people into new, future-proofed careers when traditional industries collapse – not least because studying for a new job is no guarantee that one will be available in left-behind regions (the book Janesville: An American Story, by Amy Goldstein, explores this issue well).
But it is now obvious how serious are the political and social consequences of failing to see and support those whose place in healthy and productive economies and societies has disappeared.
Being part of the solution is both the best way for universities to help communities around them, and the best way to protect their own interests too – whether that’s measured in terms of funding, public legitimacy or their liberal values.
Like the disenfranchised masses, universities too could be excused for feeling battered and bruised and, in some cases, uncertain about their place and role, or what their future holds.
A serious, strategic commitment to lifelong learning will be vital to the fightback – that, surely, is a prediction that won’t go up in smoke.
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