Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

If I’m being perfectly honest, I’m not a big fan of “Secret Santa”.

It’s not the discomfort attached to having to work out what it is that someone’s bought for you while everyone watches, or having to pivot rapidly to gratitude and feigned amusement as you realise that that is what they think of you – because that’s who they think you are.

In a cruel sort of way, that’s all worth it for the fun of watching everyone else work out what’s been bought for them as they pivot rapidly to gratitude and feigned amusement, while it dawns on others that that is what we think of them.

It’s the reality that I both know how difficult I am to buy for, and how difficult I find knowing what to buy for others. On the former, maybe the gifts over the years mean that my entire personality really does amount to work, the Eurovision Song Contest and swear words – as the copies of its official history and the novelty post-it notes gather dust on the shelf.

And then on the latter, I’m always baffled at how colleagues knew what to get. Are they stalkers? Mind readers? Did they cheat, and ask?

So when, under the full glare of Team Wonkhe’s attention, I ripped open this year’s mystery package to uncover a Christmas Ceefax Jumper, it’s hard to explain how relieved I was.

There’s little more comfortable than a jumper, and so there’s nothing more comfortable if you’re as socially awkward as me than a jumper that allows you to wallow in a forgotten past, when the closest we got to the internet was punching in a code on the telly to read a truncated version of the news headlines.

Nostalgia’s like that. It takes the pressure off. It gives you something to nod about. It gives you something to explain to the young. And it gives us something to yearn for when we don’t know what’s coming – because if we muddle through for now, and get better at telling our stories and explaining ourselves for a bit, something will come along. It always did in the past.

When I was a student

This is hardly a new observation – but when I was listening (and I listened to every word over the two years) to Parliament’s deliberations over the Free Speech Bill, I was never not struck by the number of times that speakers in both houses referenced their own time at university.

What jarred the most wasn’t the caricatures of “social justice warrior” students apparently dedicated to oppressing others’ freedom – although I’m sure the sneering felt good.

It was the astonishing idea that a bit of legislation and a man from Cambridge would suddenly magic up the time and space for most students these days to do anything other than sleep, (barely) eat, worry, earn, cobble and wing it.

It often strikes me that the sector’s transformational impact on those that make decisions – in all walks of life – is both its biggest advantage and its most significant Achilles’ heel.

After all, that nostalgia for our own youth, fused with the need to “sell the experience” and Britain’s political and cultural tendency to reach for former glories, has seen the sector through many a funding crisis.

Most of the people I like want everything that was good about their past to be experienced by more people in our future. There are lots of definitions of progress – and that’s the one I come back to most often.

But when I look back at my own time at university, it’s partly a delusion. Of course there were moments of reinvention, transformation, of confidence-building and awareness-raising. But there were also tragedies, nastiness, days of pointlessness and weeks of emptiness.

And even if it was “better” then, the past is a foreign country – they do things differently there.

Something’s come along and it’s burst our bubble

UK higher education is in trouble because the country is in trouble. At the autumn statement, Jeremy Hunt’s giveaways were predicated on day-to-day departmental expenditure increasing by an average of just 0.9 per cent in real terms from 2025.

Hence outside of what will doubtless remain ringfenced areas (such as the NHS, defence and schools), the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) warned that spending on unprotected departments will need to fall by 2.3 per cent a year in real terms from 2025-26. That’s the plan.

So imagine you’re an incoming government that wants to rebuild the public realm – to fix what George Mobiot notes are the collapsing classrooms, the crumbling flood defences, the failing tower blocks, the overwhelmed hospitals, the understaffed social care, the broken transport network, the spouting sewers, and the lethal housing.

Monbiot tots it up to an extra £65bn a year that Rachel Reeves says we don’t have. But don’t worry. Bridget Phillipson was nice about us the other day, and Keir Starmer was tweeting about his time at Sheffield. Maybe Rachel Reeves will pour some money in and leave us alone and invent a new fiscal rule about human capital or something.

Part of the problem that the sector faces is that for decades, every time it has needed to expand, it’s done so by transferring some of the cost onto those who participate in it. Hence in the last decade, pretending in the national accounts that students would pay their loans in full, while touting the progressivity of a system that guaranteed they wouldn’t, allowed far, far more people to go.

But now after honesty in the accounting was mandated, and loan terms raided to get the debt down, the sector is in the worst of all worlds. Few in the public have universities or students anywhere near the front of the queue for a bailout. Spending per student in real terms will cruise below 2011’s level any day now, all while the expectations on that spend grow on a more unhealthy and more educationally (and socially) diverse student body.

The fixed costs tied up in PFI deals across what looks to others like the gleaming estate (at least when compared to local schools or council buildings) prevent contraction. Staff pay is atrophying in real terms. Everyone knows that doctoral-level study is becoming a cruel career pyramid scheme, and candidates for students’ union office now promise to improve the range in the campus food bank – as if being hungry and young is supposed to be normal.

Anyone that knows anything about economics knows that Britain needs more graduates – just not the ones we have now, and not in the places that they are now. Yet faced with so many other problems, few can contemplate a way to fund either their participation or the surrounding infrastructure outside of the uncapped ideology of the last decade’s accounting trick.

Covid, with its furlough bailout, reduced campus costs and a state that egged the sector on into getting students to pay in full for something obviously worse, helped for a while. Then post-pandemic, a thirst for international Master’s study from the global south coupled with a sector that thought the implications of rapid growth were someone else’s problem also allowed an avoidance of the problem. Both plasters have come off.

Meanwhile, if the sector is honest, the student experience has become pretty thin. Too many of them are in poverty, too many are hanging on by a thread, and too few have the time to have anything like the rich educational or social experience that they or others imagine they should be having. Many of them are much too ashamed to admit it – attributing blame to themselves for their choices – and most in the sector are too ashamed to admit it too.

Ten years asleep

I have been reading the day’s media coverage of higher education now (and tweeting out the articles) for over a decade now – and given the state of my replies some days, I suspect that what shocks people the most in the sector is the way that that coverage talks about what they do.

When there’s not a story about access, there’s one about cancel culture. Most days someone’s worried about overeducation, or how any number of entrepreneurs have made it without clocking up student debt. And even the sympathetic stories seem to imagine that a different vice-chancellor or a new higher education minister can make it like it was in their day.

What I find most fascinating about it all was the way in which it was predicted. Martin Trow was one of the most influential academics in higher education studies in the second half of the 20th century, and his 1973 paper on the shift from elite to mass is surely one of the most well-read.

Yet his analysis of the problems the shift would generate somehow never translated into avoiding those problems – with that daily drumbeat of negativity in the news neatly encapsulating his seven key warnings:

  • Equity and access: There will be a struggle to provide equitable access to all social groups
  • Funding and resources: There will be challenges in securing sufficient resources to support expanded system, as the burden of costs shifts to students through fees
  • Quality: As the system expands, there will be a worry that the dilution of standards and risk education becomes more vocational and less focused on intellectual rigour
  • Institutional diversity: A more diverse range of institutions to cater to the varied needs and abilities of a broader student body will be required, but that will result in stratification and different levels of quality, prestige and support
  • Role: A conflict over purpose — whether as centres for research, professional training, or liberal education — will be the subject of debate
  • Labour market outcomes: There will be negative perceptions of underemployment or a devaluation of degrees
  • Cultural and social change: Massification will bring significant cultural and social changes, as a higher proportion will be exposed to the values and norms of HE

Of course Trow didn’t predict the internet, or AI, or the way in which our expectations about what we want or need humans to do in the future would change – as expectations on what we want or need education to do change with it.

But for whatever reason, pretty much globally, higher education has been unable to avoid the paradoxes he paints in that paper – we all want more of this, but “this” will change, and we’re not sure we’re so keen on paying for it.

To be fair to the UK, pretty much every country has struggled in the shift to mass – partly because meeting the costs of higher participation by shifting those costs from a state with an ageing population to individuals has either been hidden, or justified in economic, social and educational arguments that belong to an elite age.

But it leaves a nostalgia-obsessed UK in a particularly exposed position – trading on its reputation, former glories and boarding-school mythologies, it pretends that students and those that teach them are having an immersive experience that fewer now can attain. And parts of it pretend that subject immersion for its own sake can last in a world adorned with analysis and starved of solutions.

Even if they were all learning it, on our travels around Europe in recent years I have rarely escaped the feeling that what they’re learning may be a problem. Taking part in the UK’s education system has always felt like a big rat race of competition, grading and sorting to the detriment of others, and other purposes.

As Penny Mordaunt and Chris Lewis argue in the book that pretty much ruled Mordaunt out for the leadership of the Conservatives – an obsession with being “better” and “right” is one that probably stops us being so:

They don’t teach empathy, humility or integrity. Universities train students to take problems apart, not how to put them back together. They can’t join the dots. Or, to put it another way, this model of the world is founded on spotting difference rather than similarity. Exam questions require that students “compare and contrast” or “analyse the causes of”. A problem is analysed-but it is never solved. It is reduced, split into smaller components that themselves are subject to further analysis. It is thinking that goes in one direction only. It struggles to see the whole.

Meanwhile, as the redundancy schemes pile up and the endless reorganisations guarantee that few will get what they were promised, reputational timidity and ideological objections to students-as-consumers somehow prevent the sector from protecting those that have been transferred the bulk of the risk and the financial contribution. Deep down, UK HE still thinks they should be grateful to be there.

Outside of higher education, much “future” thinking centres on alternatives to “going to university” – on micro-credentials, lifelong learning and adult-reskilling. These are important agendas that the sector has tended to watch rather than shape – as if higher level learning is only really possible if it’s not very practical and experienced outside of the real world.

Yet long-form “escape” – from one’s childhood, or community, or previous identity, is still much more valuable and sought-after than most imagine. People, and politicians, are ambitious about their kids. In the teeth of all of this, the danger is that higher education itself descends into nostalgia, endless existential debates about “purpose”, or avoidance on the basis that something will come along.

What it could do is help make the future.

An agenda for growth

Until very recently, pretty much every manifesto from almost every political party at every election talked about growing the sector. Ambition for the UK was linked to needing more graduates in more places doing more things – but one of the unintended upshots of the cap coming off has instead been to call for contraction. Maybe hoping that there can be return to that kind of consensus is in and of itself a dangerous descent into nostalgia. But if we think that what higher education does and could do is important, it’s worth a shot.

Our universities know that the sort of work available that graduates might need to do is not necessarily being supported by what they learn inside the sector. A vague articulation of generic skills in the curriculum is not a meaningful response to that problem. Properly grappling with what we’ll need humans to do in the future – and then transforming the experience to match it – would be.

We know that regional inequality and the country’s woeful economic performance outside of London and parts of the South East is important. Demanding that the funding system ignore what students are studying, where they study it or where they live afterwards is not a meaningful response to that problem. Engaging with the way in which higher education can rebuild the country’s economic performance – and addressing the tensions in tackling “supply” – is a significant opportunity.

It’s clear that the health of our young people – particularly their mental health – is holding them and the country back. Getting defensive over the way in which we might expect professionals in higher education to understand that and intervene with consistency and care is not a meaningful response to that problem. Thinking through the way in which higher education can both harm and help students’ mental wellbeing and organising it accordingly ought to be a central purpose.

Deep inequality still pervades the country and the world, and yet others mistrust higher education’s attempts to come to terms with the role it has played in creating, sustaining and deepening it. Softening or hiding efforts to tackle inequality would not be a meaningful response to that problem, and nor would refusing to own up to how universities make it worse. Finding ways to help the young not just feel right, but secure support for their generational cause for fairness ought to be within our grasp.

There’s no doubt that the structure, retrieval, application and generation of knowledge is changing rapidly around us. A circular working group on all the reasons why assessment in a given department can’t change is not a meaningful response to that problem. Causing both academic and professional disciplines to collaborate across and outside of the sector to figure out what society needs now is crucial, if time can be carved.

And in the context of the economic box that the sector finds itself in, it’s pretty clear that “full-time” students are an exception rather than a norm. Wishing that that weren’t the case, and dreaming of full funding for total immersion by the mass would be a dereliction, and lobbying for maintenance scraps that might make it marginally less so for a few is not a meaningful response to the problem. Embracing a credit system and reimagining an infrastructure that would allow students to combine learning, work and service – and feel like they’re succeeding – is a prize on offer.

Some of that is likely to mean change – to roles, campuses, funding streams or enabling bodies. It will need a shift – from competition to coordination. It will be unsettling and difficult, and may well upend what some see as essential, or valuable, or important. It will require real student participation, risk taking, experimentation, creativity and giving leaders at all levels more benefit of the doubt. And it might not work.

But in a country obsessed by its past that needs its education and its young people to build a better future, the only alternative is a full-throated lean-in to what others see as Britain’s bewildering new image – a nation locked into a repeating cycle of self-harm.

In 2024, Wonkhe will convene some hard thinking about the conditions in which UK higher education might grow. We can’t do it alone, so if you’re interested in getting involved get in touch.

4 responses to “Higher education needs a plan for growth

  1. Growth needs a growing student cohort, the demographic timebomb caused by fewer children being born hit schools 15+ years ago and has rippled through primary and secondary now into tertiary and Universities. Overseas students are harder to recruit as so many governments don’t support beyond the few needed to extract (steal) the latest (technical) ideas from the West, and the sectors over reliance on them is starting to bite.

    Bliar’s 50%+ means a lot of incapable s-too-dense who get a consolation prize degree as a ‘paying customer’ further devaluing those who are capable, University for all has become the wheeze to keep the number of NEET’s down. And more importantly saddling them with enough debt that they’ll never own their own home, if they earn enough to get a mortgage to do so won’t ever be able to go in strike through fear of loosing it.

  2. Most of this article is spot on, but it really isn’t fair or accurate to say that that “doctoral-level study is becoming a cruel career pyramid scheme”. If you mean that we graduate more PhDs in most subjects than will ever have academic posts, that is of course true. But if we set aside the traditional-but-frankly-rather-silly assumption that everybody doing a PhD should aspire to an academic post, career outcomes for PhDs (especially in STEM disciplines) surely look pretty good?

    Remembering well my own struggles in the postdoctoral employment market, I have always been up-front with my (prospective) PhD students that the academic job market is incredibly tough and that they should view an academic career as only one of a number of possible positive outcomes. As it happens, none of my students have yet secured a permanent academic post. However, the great majority have obtained challenging and rewarding jobs (typically in industrial R&D) to which they wouldn’t have access without their doctoral training. Even those who went into “standard graduate” jobs had the pick of those jobs and were set on a fast-track to more senior and responsible positions. And that’s before you start to consider any non-economic (e.g. personal development, wellbeing or fulfilment) benefits of higher study….

  3. Well, ‘especially in STEM disciplines’ is the operative term. I know plenty of Humanities PhDs (and not just recent ones) in precarious teaching contracts in HE, or in student support roles, or teaching in schools or FE – or working in the civil service or charity sector in rewarding but poorly paid roles that might at most require a first degree and don’t involve any fast-tracking. Almost the only Humanities PhDs I know in senior highly paid positions are professors or HE managers. Which doesn’t mean that PhDs aren’t worth doing for pure love of learning, but doctoral level study is hardly a valued career path in this country – as we can tell from the fact that British politicians with PhDs tend to conceal the embarrassing fact of being a (non-medical) Dr, whereas German politicians go to great lengths, sometimes including plagiarism, to acquire doctoral credentials.

    1. That’s a fair point, although from the stats I can find it looks like 68% of UK PGR degrees are in STEM subjects and another 6% in law or business, which suggests the huge majority of PhDs are obtained in disciplines likely to have good employment prospects outside academia. I suspect there is also an element of selection bias in our anecdotal feelings about student destinations: we see the ones hanging around universities and trying to make a career in HE, while those who make a clean break and jump whole-heartedly into another career tend to disappear off our radar. I’d be interested to see some hard data on this, broken down by subject. Anyway, without in any way minimising the challenges faced by those PhDs who face difficulties, I still think the overwhelming majority come out with pretty good prospects (although not necessarily the exact prospects they had in mind, if they had their heart set on becoming a professor). The important thing for me is that they should go in with their eyes open.

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