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How can the higher education sector regain the educational high ground?

Sue Betts of Linking London wonders how the higher education sector can regain the educational high ground?
This article is more than 6 years old

Sue Betts is Director at Linking London, hosted by Birkbeck, University of London.

After Linking London’s March board meeting, and the It’s Alive! conference, I thought it worth reflecting on over a decade working in an unusual, under-funded, but in my view important corner of HE.

Linking London is a collaborative partnership of fifty universities, colleges and others that work together to support the recruitment, retention and progression of all students through higher education. Over the years this agenda has changed to reflect the growing need to improve retention, and support “student success” through to the workplace. We are currently part of another national priority, the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP), designed to increase the number of young people going to into higher education from the most deprived areas of the country by 20%.

Although it’s hard for most of us to find time away from day-to-day demands to write, our conversation at Wonkhe’s regulation conference prompted me to put some thoughts down, about the higher education sector today and how much things have changed over the twelve years I have had the privilege to work within it.

Ye olde days

I was appointed in 2006 to lead a HEFCE-funded Lifelong Learning Network. Thirty were set up across the country (at the last count I think four or five are still in existence) primarily to support the vocational route into higher education. At the time it was poorly understood and often considered a poor relation of the A level route. Those attitudes have started to change, but there’s much work to do still.

The tools to helped us do this then were progression agreements, supported by additional student numbers. At the end of the project, we had over a hundred progression agreements across the partnership. In addition, we were to explore the use of credit accumulation and transfer to support lifelong learning, along with improving the quality and availability of the information, advice, and guidance to would-be students. We have always been hosted by Birkbeck, University of London.

I remember attending a HEFCE annual meeting where more vice chancellors were assembled per square inch than I have ever encountered before, or since. If you wanted to know what a pressure group for the HE sector looked like this was it. VCs were powerful, clever, took the mickey out of each other, and were protectors of their sector. Their current fall from grace in the national psyche is very sad, both personally, and for the toxic effect it is having on the sector as a whole.

They, and the staff they spoke for represented a world where communities of learning, academic truth, and robust research provided a healthy counterweight to the seemingly grubby, consumerist world of the market.

New (dis)order

So where did it all go wrong? When did VCs lose the support of government, gain the ire of Lord Adonis, and have the press repeatedly try to shame them? I am a practitioner, not a researcher, working in and around the higher education sector. But to my mind, several changes seem to have led us to where we are now.

The removal of student number controls, the tripling of fees to £9,250, the never-ending quest for growth (which brings competition with neighbours) – all had a role to play. The net result was the domination of the ‘full fat’, three-year, residential, full-time, undergraduate degree. The heady days of hope for lifelong learning seem long gone. Part-time learner numbers declined, Professor Claire Callender has written extensively on the disappearing part-time learner, mature learners are at risk of declining too (as evidenced by the latest UCAS statistics), and the race has been on ever since to recruit 18-year-olds, plus those lucrative international students.

The sector then became susceptible to the charge that it had not diversified, either in terms of provider type or the offering to students. There are of course a few exceptions to this picture, Birkbeck and the OU being two such examples. The movement away from straight academic degrees towards working with employers on foundation degrees (and the whole area of professional and technical education) stalled. Although, recently there has been an attempt to re-engage with this pathway through the development of higher and degree apprenticeships. The numbers, however, remain small and employer engagement has not proved to be as easy or extensive as was originally supposed, despite the introduction of the employer levy for larger companies.

With all this money coming into the sector, investment in new estates began in earnest, and with it came the rise in VC remuneration. If salaries are arrived at with due diligence, I appreciate the demanding and high profile role a VC performs. Unfortunately though, a few high profile cases seem to suggest that not only are some salaries too high – especially in the ‘age of austerity’ and virtual salary freezes for most HE staff – but there is something not quite right in the way that remuneration had been agreed.

Telling our story

The resulting narrative made the sector vulnerable. I think that VCs need to regain the moral, anti-materialistic, and educational higher ground, and quickly. They could be a powerful force again. Where are the stories about the sector that we know and love?  A sector where staff are always willing to share their work and support others, that contributes to its local area, and is a force for good? The sector where lives are changed daily, and where altruism and collaboration are evidenced in their work? No-one seems to be telling this story, or if they are it is not being heard, or more worryingly – it does not fit the current political climate.

The changes now happening, the closure of the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the opening of the new Office for Students, a regulator with an increasing emphasis on compliance, within a so-called market, needs a sector that is strong and united in both its purpose and resolve.

At the present moment, there appears to be little counterweight to the media’s desire for bad news stories. Defining the purpose of higher education in all its variety could be a starting point to inform a national debate, and the post-18 review might provide an opportunity here. But, highlighting what the sector actually contributes to the local, regional, and global economy requires united leadership.

One response to “How can the higher education sector regain the educational high ground?

  1. This article and Louis’s should serve as calls for better communication about the amazing work our universities do. BUFDG is committed to helping universities adopt Integrated Reporting, and thanks to financial help from funding councils, AdvanceHE is half-way through a project to explore whether IR has a place in higher education – due to report in July 2018–reporting/index.cfm .
    Whether an integrated report stands any more chance [than the usual Annual Report and Accounts] of being read by those we need to reach depends on everyone in universities contributing to it, believing the report says something about their work, and promoting it wherever they can. We do need to be better at telling stories – some BUFDG members benefited from a course at the RCSSD (highly recommended The RWCMD is also running a course email – training at fellow institutions keeps valuable funds in the sector and is great value for money.

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