A critical path: Securing the future of higher education in England

This new publication from the Institute of Public Policy and Research has been produced by their Commission on the Future of Higher Education. The commissioners were:

Professor Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor and president, University of Warwick (chair)

Thom Arnold, former president, Sheffield Students’ Union (2011/12)

Professor Janet Beer, vice-chancellor, Oxford Brookes University

Dame Jackie Fisher, chief executive, Newcastle College Group

Professor Sandra McNally, director of education and skills, LSE

Professor John Sexton, president, New York University

Professor Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor and chief executive, University of Exeter

Professor Sir Rick Trainor, principal and president, King’s College London

Hugh Morgan Williams, chairman, Broadtek Ltd

In the executive summary it states that “this Commission believes that our higher education system must continue to be shaped by five principles. We believe that higher education institutions must:

• be disinterested producers of knowledge

• nurture sceptical and informed citizens

• promote the public good

• expand opportunity for all, and

• further national economic renewal.”

The summary of recommendations is: (my comments in italics)

“1. Higher education opportunities should continue to expand. While resources are constrained in the next parliament, we should sustain the current proportion of 18–21-year olds entering higher education until 2020, while focusing additional places on locally available, flexible and low-cost courses, aimed in particular at those who seek vocational oriented learning.

A possible opportunity here for universities that have a strong record of local recruitment, and vocational courses

2. Universities and further education colleges should be able to bid to provide new £5,000 ‘fee only’ degrees, focused on vocational learning and offered to local students who would be eligible for fee loans but not maintenance support.

similar to the Coventry University College model?

3. The government should consider reforms to the approximately £5 billion that companies receive in training tax relief, with a view to better incentivising employers to invest in courses leading to accredited qualifications and continuing professional development, whether in further or higher education.

This may be interesting in light of the work that this and other universities/colleges already do in developing bespoke accredited programmes

4. We must strengthen our systems of vocational provision and in particular our provision of advanced vocational learning through further education colleges. More of these institutions should be given the ability to award degrees and granted the renewed use of the title ‘polytechnic’.

interesting to see the word polytechnic reappear. Is this likely to cause a different version of the binary divide in HE?

5. We should continue to ring-fence and sustain in cash terms the science and research budget through the next spending review period until 2017/18. Because this implies a continued real-terms decline in funding, we argue that once the structural deficit in the public finances has been eradicated we should commit to a 10-year strategy of raising public investment in research each year above inflation.

6. We should reallocate approximately £1 billion a year that is mainly spent inefficiently on R&D tax incentives to instead set up a national network of Applied Research and Innovation Centres focused on boosting applied research in the strategic industries of the future and on revitalising regions with below-average growth.

7. Universities in Britain should follow the best practice of the US Ivy League in recruiting and ‘crafting’ diverse and representative student intakes. This is to ensure that students are educated not merely for individual advancement but also to be effective and responsible leaders with an understanding of an increasingly diverse society and interconnected world.

as i understand it, the Ivy League universities are able to do this by offering scholarships to enable them to “craft” their student body. Without a history of endowments and moire importantly use of them to do this, then our “leading” universities will take a while to catch up

8. Funding should be shifted out of fee waivers and bursaries and into outreach programmes, which have a stronger track-record of recruiting applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. Where possible, these should be delivered collaboratively by higher education institutions in the same city-region.

9. A student premium should be introduced of £1,000 extra per student from a low-participation area or who has received free school meals, in order to recognise the additional cost of their learning and recruitment. This would be funded by reallocating existing widening participation resources and the abolition of the national scholarship programme.

10. Institutions that currently have a small core allocation of places should be able to recruit unlimited numbers of students who are eligible for the student premium, in the same way as they are currently free to recruit students with grades ABB+. This will enable them to make contextual offers to this group.

11. More widespread use of contextual admissions data should be promoted so that lower offers can be made to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This will be enabled by exempting 10 per cent of the lowest grades from entry tariff calculations in university league tables, provided universities commit to using them for contextual offers.

This, and the two points above are important in addressing issues of low participation, and social justice. However  we need to recognise at the same time that such students would need more support in their learning, particularly in the transition to HE. In order o ensure that they remain in HE an d are able to succeed, those institutions that might do thsi would need to revise their overall learning and teaching strategies to reflect their student body.

12. Eligibility for part-time loans should be extended to tackle the crisis in part-time learning.

this really should have been sorted out after the Browne review!

13. International students should to be removed from the net migration target and the rules governing post-study work should be revised, to ensure that the UK’s HE sector can compete on a global stage.

Yet another report asks the government to act on this – but so many reports and so many select committees have already said the same. The standoff between BIS and the Home Office is potentially damaging to the UK HE business, and our reputation overseas is likely to be damaged.

14. A new postgraduate loans system should be introduced to enable fair and wider access to postgraduate courses.

15. Higher education institutions should strengthen the active participation of students in improving teaching and learning.

I think this is already happening – we see students increasingly engaged in quality processes  and we take increasing note of what is said in student surveys and understand how this affects us in league tables and Unistats. There will always be  a possible tension between “students as learners” and “students as customers” – if we use this university’s view of students as partners in learning, then we are taking steps in the right direction

16. English higher education institutions should embrace the potential of new technologies by recognising credit from low-cost online courses so that these may count, in part, towards degree programmes. To make a start down this road we recommend that the Open University should accredit MOOCs provided via the FutureLearn platform so that they can count towards degree programmes offered by the OU itself and its partner institutions.

Yes well…..FutureLearn is not likely to be offering credit initially. What could be interesting is how institutions who are not partners of the OU could reuse the materials provided (assuming tha they are “open”) and then award credit themselves. Alternatively, there are useful lessons to be learned from some of the uses of technology to improve any on-campus offer.

17. All universities should follow the example of those that have created an established career path for academics who want to focus on teaching.

I think this goes without saying, but it is important that institutions who follow this do have in place the promotion and reward mechanisms for those who wish to pursue a teaching career (and for me that isn’t about just teaching, but providing leadership and innovation in teaching and learning).

18. To enable greater transferability throughout the system:

–– HEFCE should exempt those students that transfer directly from one institution to another from student number controls.

–– Higher education institutions should be encouraged to establish transfer arrangements with other institutions, both regionally and nationally. The regulator should include accreditation of prior learning as a good practice in access agreements. It should also set benchmarks for how many transfer students institutions should aim to admit.

–– HESA should collect data on the extent to which institutions engage in transfers and accredit previous qualifications of students.

19. We recommend that HEFCE, QAA and OFFA should be merged into a single higher education regulator. This will reduce bureaucracy by simplifying the relationship between universities and government.”

every report on HE recommends this……

I’m sure there’ll be  a brief flurry of commentary over the next week, indeed there is already a review on the WonkHE site by David Kernohan, but this report may go the way of so many. Still some interesting ideas here though, particularly for a university like ours.