The second reading of the fee limits bill offers a chance to reflect on where we are now and where we should go next.
We urgently need positive government and sector action to align disparate university policy so that it works for all stakeholders, enabling universities to play our part in regional growth.
Machinery and opportunity
David Willetts recently made the case for universities to change departmental hands in order to capitalise on science and research investment and to restore a ministerial brief for universities. He makes an important point – universities are currently being pulled in too many directions, with too many contrasting government narratives to be able to successfully deliver on the skills agenda for which they are so well placed.
We know that government can see the value of universities to the skills agenda but more coherent policymaking on universities is necessary. Policy thinking has been creative regardless of any judgments – such as the suggestion 50 universities are needed in cold spots to support levelling up.
Also, universities can do more to reflect and align current policy to support our students and communities. The skills agenda, equality of opportunity risk register (EORR), the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE), and the delivery of educational gains are all place-based concepts which could be operationalised coherently.
As part of our Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) submission, we offered new ways of thinking about how individual “educational gains” can be translated into collective”‘educational gains” for our locality. This reflection has led to greater collaboration across different parts of the university – business engagement, research and community engagement alongside our learning and teaching colleagues.
Opening the doors
We see the LLE as a next step to greater collaboration and the EORR as a mechanism to support the development of flexible learning to widen access that address regional education needs. The LLE is one – and significant – way to open the doors to greater partnership working with business to deliver local economic growth.
At Staffordshire University we have developed microcredentials and are participating in the Higher Education Short Course trial because we know different types of access points into higher education will upskill and transform our local area. We have ambitious plans to do more that delivers higher level skills for our region.
We know that businesses want to work with providers to deliver flexible learning. One seeming success of the Higher Education Short Course trial was the ability for universities and business to get around the table, outside of the existing apprenticeship arrangements, and identify short- and medium-term business needs, which will have a longer-term pay off, and co-create an academic offer.
Lack of demand
Unfortunately to date, uptake and learner appetite for 12-14 week “short” courses remains weak. Employers and learners tell us that 12-14 weeks is not “short”. There is more to do here to make sure that legislation incentivises innovative approaches.
Labour’s call to broaden the apprenticeship levy to a wider skills levy seems sensible to explore – although we acknowledge the funding landscape here makes changes to the existing levy complex.
The size and delivery mode of the offer is also important and the minimum of 30 credits to trigger a loan drawdown may remain too inflexible to incentivise completion of these qualifications.
We believe that a hybrid approach to modular learning is important so that local learners can benefit from campus facilities, academic expertise and exposure to a variety of pedagogical approaches. Providers may want to explore how different sizes and shapes of learning work for business and for learners. The phrase “evaluation, evaluation, evaluation” rings true here as part of our investment to increase equality of opportunity.
Unfortunately, the OfS’ B3 conditions of registration may also inadvertently dampen the government’s efforts to deliver on the skills agenda. Responses to policy may remain risk averse response rather than spur innovation in thinking on how to make flexible modular learning work for learners and for business to drive regional economic growth.
Policy here must be joined up to ensure regulation of quality for traditional course structures doesn’t negatively affect government attempts to incentivise universities to develop new and flexible higher education routes. It makes sense now that if we want to “level up” regionally we break down those traditional silos within universities which operate on separate policy agendas – business engagement, learning and teaching, research and innovation and community engagement – to make the skills agenda work.
The roll out of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement is still a few years away. To really capitalise on this, we need government to better acknowledge that universities are key to the skills agenda and that we need positive policymaking to enable us to work across all areas of the university to help deliver economic growth.
Positive policymaking for universities to innovate modular delivery, coupled with robust evaluation, will lead to a better understanding of what works, why and how, so that providers can respond with evidence that delivers economic growth.