Bringing coherence to tertiary education

Following a Policy Exchange event on the topic, Iain Mansfield and Lucian Hudson explore what we need to do to build a true tertiary education system

Iain Mansfield is Director of Research and Head of Education and Science at Policy Exchange

Lucian Hudson is Professor-in-Practice, Leadership and Organisations, at Durham University

The UK needs a more coherent tertiary education system.

Although individual universities and colleges are increasingly working together to deliver for students, tertiary education as a whole remains too siloed with divergent systems of funding, regulation and student support.

In an ideal world, every student, regardless of age or background, would be able to study the course that was best for them – regardless of whether it was at university, at a college or through an apprenticeship.

They would be able to have confidence that the course would be available, high quality, appropriately funded – and that they could access maintenance support they needed.

In other words, we need a level playing field.

How it works and how it doesn’t work

In our current system, courses are funded not on the basis of what they cost, but on a historic judgement of whether they are ‘further’ or ‘higher’ education.

We systematically fund further education at a lower rate than higher education – despite the fact that, statistically, those from disadvantaged backgrounds are represented much more strongly in further education than they are in higher education. This flies in the face of what we do in schools, for example – and it is hard to see how it can be justified.

At the same time, Higher Education is facing a steadily increasing funding crisis, with fees now worth less than £7,000 a year in 2012 prices – and students, struggling with rising rents and the wider cost-of-living crisis, are increasingly being forced to make decisions about what and where to study based on what is affordable, rather than what is best of them.

A more coherent tertiary system would greatly strengthen the ability of our post-18 education system to offer a genuine level playing field to potential students, young and old. It could also increase the incentives for colleges and universities to collaborate, rather than to compete with each other. As we heard at a recent event on this subject at Policy Exchange, some colleges and universities are already doing this, working together to provide a comprehensive range of courses in each location, streamline transfer and progression routes and outreach to schools. In some cases, this can include agreements between as to which will deliver Levels 4 and 5, and which will deliver level 6 and above – as well as where there are opportunities for shared endeavours in particular levels. Increasingly, individuals are also taking up roles that span the sector – such as Dr Shaid Mahmood, who is both Chair of the Association of Colleges and a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Durham University.

Promising direction

The Lifelong Learning Entitlement is also an important initiative in this area – though the true demand for this is currently not well understood. As currently formulated it is a first step upon the road, rather the final destination. Expansion of its scope to include high quality, work-relevant, Level 3 and below courses – such as HGV driving and heat pump installation – as well as to Level 7, incorporating the existing system of Masters Loans, would be necessary to create a truly integrated system. We must also address the fact that further education currently suffers from a bureaucratic multiplicity of hypothecated funding schemes, which severely constrains colleges’ ability to act strategically or flexibly respond to future demand.

But shifting to a more coherent tertiary system would also carry risks. It is critical that any move to a more tertiary system does not undermine the UK’s world-class research ecosystem and properly considers the implications for the UK’s leading research-intensive universities. While the two objectives are not necessarily in conflict, a ‘one-size-fits-all’ system of regulation must not stifle academic freedom or research autonomy, and structures can have long-term impacts upon ways of thinking – as can be seen by the splitting of ministerial responsibilities for higher education and research.

The experience of Wales, which has recently created a new, unified, arm’s length body, the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research, will bear close watching to learn lessons and synthesise evidence about either what to do – or what not to do. If higher education were to be moved to the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (as has been suggested by a number of commentators, not least the former minister for universities,  David Willetts), it would be advisable to move further education and apprenticeships policy to that department as well, or else one rupture might be healed at the expense of creating another.

Three coherences

Ultimately, tertiary reforms must be based on the principle of coherence, rather than an identical or one-size-fits-all approach. There are three coherence pre-requisites for moving to a student-focused tertiary education system:

Coherence of funding. This does not mean identical funding for every course, but rather a single, unified funding system, that funds courses on the basis of cost and need, whether they take place in colleges or universities, or whether the course was historically considered “further” or “higher” education. Over the medium term, this must mean reducing or eliminating the funding gap per student between FE and HE.

Coherence of student support. A student should not have to choose whether to go to college or to university on the basis of what maintenance funding is available. Again, this does not mean every student should receive the same grant: there are meaningful ways to differentiate, for example by means-testing, or on whether a student is studying away from home. Maintenance grants, in addition to loans, are also an idea worth considering, and if introduced they should be available for both further and higher education.

Coherence of regulation. The current regulatory jigsaw, with both universities and colleges regulated piecemeal by multiple, overlapping, regulators is far from ideal. It is bureaucratic, costly, and soaks up time and money that could be better spent on students. A tertiary system requires streamlining and simplification, with a regulatory system that is fit for purpose for both colleges and universities.

Delivering this is key to securing a fairer society, to unlocking the country’s economic growth potential and to deliver the skilled workforce that our rapidly changing economy is demanding.

One response to “Bringing coherence to tertiary education

  1. Yes indeed – the nation must get over the academic v vocational HE v FE dichotomy that has prevailed since the mid-C19. Joined up TE by 2030, please! And that probably means an OFTE as the regulator, as the late Ted Tapper and I suggested in our ‘Reshaping the University…’ (OUP, 2014).

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