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Let’s go fly a kite: The higher education landscape

Top wonks from across the sector share ideas on the UK higher education landscape
This article is more than 5 years old

Marian Hilditch is Academic Registrar at the University of Bradford and chair of SROC. She writes here in her own capacity.

Ian Robinson is Director, Public Sector & Education at HSBC

Zac Ashkanasy is a principal for the NOUS group

Andy Westwood is Vice Dean for Social Responsibility in the Faculty of Humanities and Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester

Trip a little light fantastic

Marian Hilditch, Head of Data Quality at Teesside University

Some day soon, we ought to want a university of the future. Not one that is technologically advanced – as fantastic and fantastical as learning through gaming and virtual classrooms can be. A university of the future would be one that reflects where we want society to be in 10 years. Imagine an environment driven by boundless student ambition, unblemished imagination, fire for justice and the belief that anything is possible?

A community of inclusivity, collaboration and support, where prior attainment doesn’t dictate your degree outcome, where the means are there to support all students to succeed? A university where nobody cares which toilet you use, where staff learn from students as much as students learn from staff – a university that doesn’t just talk about tolerance, but is so completely ahead of its time, so utopian, that when our graduates walk out into the real world, they feel compelled to change it.

Universities are magical places (not just the unseen ones), and everyone who comes into contact with them should get a dollop of the magic within. Let us make ourselves available, not just for our students, but for our own staff and everyone who wants to know what we do, how we do it and who we do it for. Let staff audit modules if there’s a seat, let the best practice we teach in our classrooms be applied to our own offices, let us open the doors of our labs, workshops, collections and lectures to anyone who wants to walk into the future, even for a bit. We are it.

Ring-fencing a university

Ian Robinson – Director, Public Sector & Education, HSBC

Following the global economic crisis, the UK Government put new rules in place to protect the economy and taxpayers – in case something similar ever happens again. This led UK banks to separate their retail banking operations from any wholesale and investment divisions, instigating a structural change in the form of ring-fencing. Is there an indication that we are already seeing a similar restructuring within higher education? The introduction of the Office for Students and student protection plans may be the start of operational ring-fencing on the part of universities.

Teaching, as the equivalent of a bank’s retail operation, uses student fees to create the liquidity necessary to cover costs of academic instruction. Research and commercialisation departments, like a bank’s wholesale and investment divisions, would be different. Indeed, without student fees to provide the necessary funding, research functions would need to generate their own liquidity to support their activities.

If there is a notion that a university is ‘too big to fail’, the introduction of a ring-fenced operation may be the natural next step in student protection. In this way, students and teaching are protected and the risks associated with research and commercialisation are ring-fenced. The debate relating to fee transparency may become clearer, whilst value for money is more easily evidenced both as a result of the OfS stepping in with robust protection of students’ financial and academic interests, but without having to prop up a university’s research arm.

The ring-fencing concept may however raise questions on how we weigh the benefits of research upon teaching and course quality. How do we improve the teaching, without leveraging the research?

Starting again on system design

Zac Ashkanasy – Principal, Nous Group

If we could design a contemporary higher education system, the system today wouldn’t be our starting point. Trying to decode today’s system is like following the hidden codes of a Dan Brown novel – fun to read, but it somehow doesn’t add up. So what would you do, if you could start again?

Recommission the sector: The UK is renowned around the world (in a good way) with the outsourcing of its services to private and non-profit organisations – think employment services, probation services, youth services, prison services and parts of the health system. What if the Government took this concept and applied it to higher education? Part of the recommissioning would involve having had fewer players, would incorporate further education with higher education, deregulate fees and have a target of one-third of institutions privatised.

Big incentives for mergers and acquisitions: Government puts a £100m pot of money on the table for universities to merge (or be ‘acquired’). The aim is to halve the number of universities. This is not to say that small, niche-focused institutions should automatically be subsumed – in fact, the opposite. You want institutions that do focus well on prospering. The real target is the middling institutions who don’t appear to do teaching or research well. These institutions need scale and investment to professionalise their offer and to create economies of scale. Equally, the savvy high performing university might see ‘acquisition’ opportunities to leapfrog their strategic agendas, particularly in research performance.

Cities as precincts: Government coordinates and invests in international student infrastructure in key cities (or nodes) around the UK. The UK takes the experience of cities like Melbourne in Australia and replicates it. This would include a common pre-arrival information and greeting service at airports, dedicated social spaces in each city for international students, bespoke student support, counselling and crisis services, joint infrastructure projects with student accommodation providers, and coordinated student recruitment campaigns. Universities in each city would operate locally on the philosophy of cooperation rather than competition.

Government as a platform: Imagine if government reimagines its role from regulator to platform provider. The NHS is a proto-version of this. In other countries, this is exactly what has happened, including a common ehealth record (that works!) for all citizens. The UK Government could adopt a similar mindset for higher education. It would build a common platform for all for admissions, learning management, credentialing and research management. It could also just buy one the plethora of edutechs to enable this – why build if it’s already been built?

Having a proper try at elite technical

Andy Westwood, Vice Dean for Social Responsibility University of Manchester

Many recent debates have the lack of diversity in England’s HE system. The Lords Economic Affairs Committee described a worrying ‘monoculture’ and the PM’s desire for a comprehensive tertiary system is one of the major drivers of the Augar Review. Many fear a return to polytechnics and the recreation of a binary divide as ministers talk hopefully of ‘parity of esteem’ while bemoaning poor ‘value for money’ and ‘Mickey Mouse courses’. Too often it feels like a vocational mission is a punishment for institutions that don’t know their place in higher education’s hierarchy.

But this should be a debate about how to create properly funded technically focused higher education. Institutions funded and students supported at the same levels as ‘traditional’ HE. Incentives for part-time, credit and ‘sub-degree’ provision. Apprenticeships and work-based HE as a proper pathway through colleges and universities. A significant share of funding from the Industrial Strategy’s £7 billion for R&D might find it’s way to the same institutions, building a better context for acquiring high-level skills. More regionally focused research spending could also prioritise the same kinds of institutions.

But is Government bold enough to put together a sustainable package of funding for institutions so that they can survive – and even thrive by doing something genuinely different? Or will they prefer to recreate a second tier sector by reducing funding, capping recruitment and letting higher ranked universities cherry pick from the Industrial Strategy and the apprenticeship levy?

They could go even further and create some new elite technical institutions doing all of these things. Recent THE and QS world rankings of best young universities (less than 50 years old) are dominated by technical institutions offering applied science or technology. The US, South Korea, Switzerland, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Spain, Belgium and Malaysia have all managed to create new elite technical institutions backed by the state. But not the UK. Neither Institutes of Technology nor Hereford’s NMITE come even close to the ambition of other countries. Unlike others, we haven’t yet managed to create a diverse and thriving tertiary system. Nor have we managed to create a world-class institution since the 1960s. In both cases, we haven’t really tried.

Get spending on R&D

Gordon McKenzie – CEO, GuildHE

The 2017 Industrial Strategy Green Paper summed up the UK’s long-term problems with translating research into business innovation. Businesses don’t invest enough (business R&D is “just over one per cent of GDP in the UK, close to half the rate in Germany and well below the OECD average”). And we are relatively poor at turning excellent research into commercial outcomes, partly reflecting how we spend public money (“in leading innovation nations… .a greater proportion of total R&D investment is on later-stage, experimental development. China, for example, currently spends twice the share of the UK”).

How to do better? First, we need a significant shift in tax incentives, starting with reversing the cuts in corporation tax since 2010. Ahead of the 2017 election, the IfS estimated that cuts to corporation tax reduced revenues by at least £16.5bn a year: changes they described as “some of the largest giveaways in both parliaments since 2010” leaving us with “the lowest headline corporation tax rate in the G7, and the second lowest rate in the EU15.”

Other tax incentives should be under the spotlight too. Recent comments from the Resolution Foundation on wealth taxes noted how Entrepreneurs Relief had “cost £22 billion over its first ten years, giving a very small minority huge capital gains tax cuts with no evidence of anything to show for that huge bill”. Money raised should be split between business and public R&D. Business R&D expenditure credits should be raised with extra tax incentives for R&D activity outside the golden triangle as part of addressing regional imbalances in the UK economy.

Extra public funding should address the current imbalance by being channelled towards the later stage, translational R&D – less focus on excellence, more on usefulness. And if businesses are going to help boost public R&D, then government and funders need to bring industry properly inside the tent, so they are part of developing funding calls in the first place.

Decouple Level 5 from Level 6

Graeme Wise – Head of Policy, University Alliance

We should not reduce the number of ‘graduates’ (i.e. people with degrees). But we should put more emphasis on high-quality HE qualifications at a mezzanine level, and provoke a widespread reconsideration of the purpose of ‘a degree’ for modern times. We need to rethink how this should be achieved by students in an era of longer lives, flexible labour markets and mixed careers, fast-changing requirements for skills and knowledge, and the rapidly diminishing returns from our trying to deliver so much higher education ‘in one shot’.

Most programmes in our system should be primarily designed towards reaching a coherent and rigorous Level 5 qualification in a specific subject area, including accredited technical proficiency where relevant. Most students would enrol initially for level 5 qualifications – for example, a Foundation Degree, DipHE or HND. Level 5 would become the standard HE qualification aim, and institutions would then directly recognise all achievement at Level 5 – a full summative assessment made and appropriate awards given for students after the relevant study duration, nominally two-years full-time or four-years part-time.

Level 6, leading to a degree, then becomes a fully self-contained educational stage amenable to innovative and flexible programme designs. It could be completed as independent learning with supervision over an extended period while the individual is in the workplace or doing something else, and could include the accreditation of activities never originally conceived as a learning programme, but which amount to a coherent learning experience in practice – in this way, for instance, the action-learning involved in starting a business could lead to a degree in business studies. An alternative might involve intensive full-time study in a range of subjects (and possibly, institutions), with a final examination by a panel, modelled on the doctoral viva (but examining to undergraduate standards).

There would be no reason why these two distinct stages should be taken contiguously (people may prefer to have a break in their journey), or should be taken through the same institution (though this would still be quite possible), or should be funded in the same way (the first stage might be funded through income-contingent loans and the second through employer funding, or vice-versa).

There would be fringe benefits. There could, for instance, be a completely new common grading structure for Level 5 qualifications, helping to reset the landscape for standards in the wake of the grade-inflation controversy. The separation of funding streams up to Level 5 from those at Level 6 offers an opportunity to rethink how we direct funding within the HE system and what the progression criteria are, and may help to avoid the imposition of a ‘tariff drawbridge’ at the point HE entry (e.g. three D’s at A-level), as recently mooted in the media, which would be wholly counterproductive.

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