The future of Higher Education

I attended the Guardian Future of Higher Education symposium earlier this month and heard a number of varied and interesting presentations including two from Government ministers in David Willetts and Simon Hughes.

There were a number of key points that arose during the course of the day.

  • There is an expectation that most institutions will seek to charge the maximum fee for their courses (and this is being borne out in the numerous announcements in the last fortnight). Aaron Porter, President on the NUS, noted that failure to charge £9000 for a course would almost suggest that it was of a lesser standard. This will bring some challenges to the Government who have based their calculations on an average fee of £7500 but David Willetts noted that the key factor was the cost to the Treasury, not the fee (notionally) charged. So if all institutions provide subsidies or fee waivers that reduce the average to £7500, then there is less likely to be an impact. If this is not the case then BIS will have to find savings. A number of options are under consideration including reducing student numbers and reducing the teaching grant further. The picture will be clearer once all institutions have declared their position and the White Paper (scheduled now for June or July) has been published. Simon Hughes delivered an impassioned plea for institutions to consider lower fees (and it has to be said that he has always been an opponent of higher fees) but the evidence is that few will respond to his call.
  • Early engagement with potential applicants was a recurring theme, particularly when widening participation was discussed. It was recognised that the choices school children make at 14 and 16 can have a decisive effect on making them credible candidates for leading universities so there is a need for universities to engage at a much earlier stage to provide guidance. There was much mention of a careers for life service which I understand was one of the victims of the cuts so there may be a void that universities need to fill. The value of early engagement is perhaps illustrated by an example from Europe. The Italian system had a high drop out level and they sought to rectify that by engaging with applicants and identifying the courses that were most suitable for them. The drop out rate is falling as a result.
  • Further evidence for the need for engagement was highlighted in the session on marketing courses. Both Peter Slee and Tricia King identified that a key factor in a student choosing to go to university was the opportunity to sample university life through visits and open days. King observed that engagement with applicants is an important part of retention as you are introducing the experience and managing expectations (although as one delegate pointed out, it is important to ensure that support is available throughout a student’s time at university). For all the Government’s talk about providing better information through the key information sets, the consensus was that decisions are largely made with the heart, not the head so although the KIS might provide assurance for parents, the open day or visit is more likely to be influential on the students themselves.
  • It was also recognised that there needs to be greater engagement with employers. A number of leading accountancy companies have established relationships with some institutions and will, for certain courses, pay individuals students’ fees for the duration, pay them a salary whilst they are studying and give them a job on graduation. This is perhaps evidence that the sector does provide good value for money when compared with the cost of training graduates. This will clearly be an attractive option to applicants when fees increase but not all industries are in a position to offer such incentives. Graduates in STEM subjects are unlikely to command large salaries and the high salaries available in the financial sector are leading to a drain of STEM graduates from their preferred discipline. It was recognition that the Government needs to look at ways of providing incentives for graduates to stay in STEM disciplines.
  • Finally the conference looked at the alternatives for delivering higher education. It was recognised that the Further Education sector has a role to play and the success of the 2 + 2 scheme in Scotland (where the FE college delivers the first two years of the course before students move to a HEI to complete) was cited as a good example of an effective partnership between the two sectors. It was recognised that FE Colleges have stronger links to their local community and to industry than their HE counterparts. Commercial providers have also go strong links with commerce and shape their programmes to meet companies’ needs. They have had to be lean in order to survive and live with challenges of variable student numbers and income.

Overall the event was rather more upbeat than I had been expecting. The consensus was that the sector was well placed to see through the turbulence over the next couple of years and couple look forward with a reasonable amount of optimism. That said, there is no space for complacency. It was clear that there is a need for the sector to be more efficient and also the need for greater investment in engagement with both potential applicants and employers. IT can clearly play a role in these areas but I suspect the bigger challenge will be the change in culture required.

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