Time to open the door on sector diversity

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There are lots of reasons that HE provision is organised – at undergraduate level at least – into three year blocks resulting in bachelor’s degrees. There’s history and tradition. Then there’s the funding model which provides students with vouchers in the form of tuition fee loans for three or four years.  In addition, the model provides great opportunities for ‘children’ learning how to be, and growing into, independent adults.

The lifting of the student number cap has given universities an incentive to seek out as many students as they can, and the funding arrangements incentivise them to keep students for as long as possible. The advent of the loan for taught postgraduate courses offers further structural support for students to stay studying for longer.

Now, there is no denying that there is already an amazing vibrancy and diversity in UK higher education, but are the alternatives to the ‘standard’ as accessible and known about as they could be? Could additional flexibility and more collaboration with the further education sector allow for increased success providing students with a higher quality experience? Last year’s White Paper and the provisions of the Higher Education and Research Act passed earlier this year aim to open up the sector to new providers, offering a variety of learning models. There is a shift in emphasis away from the three-year, residential model to one which provides students’ with more flexibility. Two key policies include, encouraging credit transfer and making two-year degree options more attractive to students.

I believe this approach to flexible learning makes us look at higher education not from the point of view of the structures, but from the perspective of what students need and want.  For those the standard model doesn’t fit, for whatever reason, we then need to build the learning offer around them. This approach also creates more diversity and social mobility. Ultimately, making sure all students have access to learn anywhere, anytime and in a way that suits them.

But why is this needed? We anticipate that, as working lives extend and the pace of technological adoption increases retraining for all will become a necessity. There will be proportionately more mature students in higher education. And with a likely increase in degree apprenticeships, this isn’t just a far off dream – but an immediate reality. We need education which is flexible and which adapts to students’ collective and individual needs – although this applies whether you are a mature student or someone looking to take the next step from college. A traditional approach isn’t always best and technology will be a huge part of making that alternative tailored option a reality.

The Higher Education Commission’s report identifies the barriers to innovative thinking in the delivery of higher education. It shows that there are structural reasons why true flexibility is unlikely to appear by magic, and I see that the will to change is there. To me this means the biggest challenge is actually how we support, make work and ensure the quality of what we already have. We want to ensure every student gets a high quality experience.

Jisc is already working to support alternative provision by offering access to the Janet network and our many other services, used by UK higher, further education and research, to new providers so that they can provide the highest quality facilities for staff and students. But, so much more will need to be done to allow these new models to thrive.

While I expect the typical three year university experience will continue to dominate, I see changes will be needed in the future to further improve and adapt our excellent higher education system. We want our students to have confidence that they can use reputable alternative provision if it’s the best way to meet their career choices, whether they are training to be an engineer, lawyer, musician, artist, cook, or football management professional.

If we don’t support changes to higher education to keep up with the way of the world and best meet student need we may be doing them a disservice. By opening up opportunities, we can support and foster the diversity of HE provision that will see the widest possible range of students benefit.

The Higher Education Commission’s report One Size Won’t Fit All: the Challenges Facing the Office for Students can be found here.

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