It’s time for a single tertiary system

Love or loathe the phrase “fourth industrial revolution”, the times are certainly a-changin’.

Whether it’s the environment, inequality, ageing or any other global challenge – an emerging cluster of new technologies have the potential to offer disruptive solutions to hitherto stubborn problems. One area where big changes may be overdue is our education and training structure.

Here, we share some emerging ideas from down under, along with challenges that both nations need to face up to. We believe the time for change in the UK is ripe, with the government’s reviews of post-18 education, funding, and of Levels 4-5, new T levels, plus Labour’s emerging National Education Service.

Challenges for both nations

It is commonly accepted that further education (FE) is under-funded and marred by a lack of investment and flawed policies in both countries. Many colleges teeter on the financial brink. By some measures learners’ outcomes are sometimes poor in FE, and the sector constantly strives for “parity of esteem” with higher education (HE). The reverse is true on other measures and in some cases.

Regardless, the abstract, theoretical and academic have been consistently prioritised over the practical, technical and vocational. This is endemic among families, friends, teachers and politicians. This hierarchy means that knowledge is prioritised over skills (when obviously the answer is both). It could also be argued that HE has over-expanded, while FE has dangerously contracted.

In both countries, the FE and HE systems are pulled in different directions by a confusing cats-cradle of regulations and funding. Meanwhile, the dream of lifelong learning remains unrealised, with the numbers of mature and part-time students in England nose-diving, just when retraining is more important than ever. Too many adults – including graduates – still have low basic skills or digital literacy.

A new national tertiary system

This situation is not sustainable given the growing disconnect between what the current system delivers and the skills that employees and employers say they need. Both nations need a national tertiary education and training system, providing a holistic set of pathways for post-18 higher-level study and training.

This requires a new relationship between FE and HE, ending the “false divide”, as the UK universities minister Sam Gyimah recently called it. A new mix of services are necessary to deliver the education and skills countries now need, providing responsive education ecosystems at local and national levels. However, in both nations unguided market forces won’t achieve the required changes alone, nor will policy tinkering around the edges. Only deliberate and major national policy changes will be sufficient.

A refreshed qualifications framework

Rather than false FE/HE dichotomies, this new national tertiary system should feature a single, redefined and refreshed national framework for qualifications – from entry-level certificates, to bachelors degree, degree apprenticeship or equivalent (level 6 in the UK, Australian Qualifications Framework level 7 in Australia), and through to PhD (level 8 or AQF level 10).

This should place practical and technical awards on a par with the academic at each level, there’s no reason why a PhD should be “higher” than exceptional mastery of skills in fields involving performance, creativity, design and the visual arts. Redefined descriptors would allow upper-level qualifications to accommodate excellence in practice and technique, not just theory and knowledge. How these qualifications are defined will set the tone for this new, more equal system. The current language is beset by inherent biases and value judgements.

A new approach to funding

Such national qualification frameworks would provide the structure, funding and regulation for the new holistic system, where rigorous qualifications (demonstrating what people actually know and can do) are the focus, rather than the current binary splits between provider types and funding streams. But this isn’t just about qualifications – it’s also about learners and employers being confident the right skills have been imparted to the learner.

A refresh would also be an opportunity to develop a comprehensive and forward-looking system that identifies the skills needed to meet those grand challenges, as well as flexibility to adapt in future as new challenges emerge. Funding should be coherent and demand-driven across the whole system, giving learners, governments and employers a say. Numbers shouldn’t be capped, but demand should be influenced by employers and governments at different levels.

Funding for tertiary systems should also be transparent, with clear accountability for the outcomes public and private money is investing in – whether that’s teaching or research. An element of cross-subsidisation of research from tuition income is inevitable, particularly in the cross-over area of scholarship, but the starting point should be that high-quality research needs to be fully funded by governments or industry and not be so reliant on teaching money from students.

A single regulator

Regulation should be light touch, with the current swathes of red tape trimmed down. A unified tertiary system requires one independent regulator for quality and one for everything else, not the array of organisations that feature in the UK and Australia.

For instance, many English FE colleges have to answer to the Education and Skills Funding Agency, Ofsted and the Office for Students. English universities are regulated by the Office for Students, Ofsted and the Quality Assurance Agency. Down under the Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) covers vocational provision while the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) regulates higher education. Professional bodies and a raft of awarding bodies and qualification authorities are involved too. And yet, ineffective and very occasionally fraudulent provision in both countries needs to be identified earlier and addressed more robustly.

Independent and expert pricing

Price is another important area where governments can play a greater role. Independent pricing authorities, equipped with the appropriate skills and data, and working within overarching financial parameters set by the government, could determine the appropriate price for teaching in different disciplines and at different tertiary qualification levels, recognising delivery costs and overheads.

They could also set the maximum amount to be paid through student contributions, having regard to the expected private benefit. Pricing authorities could work with local stakeholders, offering part of the fee to be grant funded by the region so the learner pays less in fields that are key to local skills. FE are used to prices being set this way, but HE isn’t.

This would help take some of the politics out of total tuition fee levels for different fields. In Australia, such calculations are currently determined from a 1993 formula that inhibits change and is vulnerable to lobbying. The 2012 reforms in England which saw tuition fees triple were predicated on an assumption that providers would vary their fees, without realising that education is a positional good where price signals quality.

A consistent learner experience

The process of applying and progressing through this new, unified tertiary system should be completely agnostic about technical or academic options. Applicants should get the same information, apply in the same way, and be able to move between the two seamlessly. Why is it in the UK that UCAS only covers HE applications, whereas FE is fragmented – requiring different applications to individual institutions? All students should be given engaging and accurate information about outcomes.

Micro-credentials would recognise the smaller units of learning achieved and allow people to move between providers, with the funding following.

All applicants should also have access to a single, standardised income-contingent loan scheme that allows them to borrow for student contributions across the full range of tertiary qualifications. This should be tailored to suit disadvantaged, part-time and mature learners, a major flaw in the current UK system. The currently highly complex and fragmented systems of loans across the two countries unintentionally distort demand.

There is a growing sense around the world that the demands of the fourth industrial revolution will require major changes to how education, training and vocational training is delivered. Further and higher education institutions now have a small window of opportunity to influence that change, or have it be done to them.

Wonkhe is grateful to Stephen Parker and Mike Rowley of KPMG for sharing their expertise and examples for this article. KPMG’s expertise span many sectors; to find out about how the team can help you contact Justine Andrew (justine.andrew@kpmg.co.uk).

One response to “It’s time for a single tertiary system

  1. “there’s no reason why a PhD should be “higher” than exceptional mastery of skills in fields involving performance, creativity, design and the visual arts.”

    A PhD is more than a mastery of knowledge so it should be considered higher than a mastery of skills (and higher than a master’s degree), but in the UK there are Professional Doctorates that generate new insights into practical work and so they should be considered to be equal to a PhD, yes.

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