“Other countries are astonished by the complexity of our tertiary education system”

Students, universities, colleges and employers all want a simplified, connected, flexible tertiary system – but this isn’t news to anyone.

The bigger, knotty questions are how do we get there – and why haven’t we got there already?

How do we get there?

Ellen Wilson from Pearson wants universities and colleges to find common ways of recognising skills, perhaps through a learning passport. MIT and eight other institutions are currently trialling a digital credential initiative, to create a standard way of recognising student achievements. Digital credits and degrees that you can keep in your pocket would help students move around – between universities, colleges and other organisations. As would progressive, subscription-based payment models for education which recognise that education can be gradual, or interrupted.

But getting students through the door is the first priority, and lots of students can’t move from place to place. Yana Williams from Hugh Baird College advocates targeted local work for FE colleges. For Hugh Baird, one of their big recruitment drives happens in the Asda supermarket across the road. Their team goes over during the summer and runs pop-ups and talks to mums with young children and people working nearby. Twenty or thirty people join the college every year through their work in Asda. These students are motivated by the possibility that they can study nearby, and still keep their job and their house.

Bold political leadership is crucial, says Julie Lydon, vice chancellor at the University of South Wales: “we haven’t won the argument that the future is about a knowledge economy”. Julie doesn’t doubt the ability of the sector to adapt, rather she thinks that politicians haven’t accepted that we’re not keeping up with our competitors across the world in integrated FE and HE provision.

The sector also needs structural change and system disruption: Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester thinks that “we can’t create the tertiary system with pathways that we need while leaving the current system intact”. Our current system is based on a series of assumptions about students and funding that couldn’t survive in a more integrated, flexible tertiary system.

Why haven’t we got there already?

We’re not there yet because our system isn’t balanced. Andy points out that FE colleges and employer-based training have declined since 2010 because of the high level of provision offered by universities – attached to the £9k fee. While HE funding has soared since 2010, FE funding has dribbled on; many FE colleges are in decline and would need serious investment to compete with universities.

Attached to funding is the narrative question posed by Julie: has the argument for rebalancing FE and HE been won? The Augar review was tasked with ensuring a “joined-up system that works for everyone” and the report came up with £3bn in extra funds for FE but didn’t propose deep or broad structural change that would enable a shift in priorities and thinking. Does this injection of cash suggest that the broad argument hasn’t been won, or that the Augar review was never capable of galvanising structural change?

Beyond Westminster, employers, colleges and universities have a shared responsibility to accelerate change. For example, there’s an unhelpful narrative around graduates not being ready for work: Andy says that employers need a “massive kick in the arse” in terms of work training and education, because there often isn’t enough. More training and skills development means more potential fluidity for students – and in the education sector more broadly. Partnerships between universities, colleges and employers need to involve recognising gaps and addressing them – preferably together, through sharing knowledge and data.

Another question around narratives came from a Wonkfest audience member, who thought that representations of universities were entrenching narratives about HE and FE and stopping people from thinking that higher education was for them. Adverts for universities still display traditional models of university life: “our images and language don’t invite people in”. Changing narratives isn’t just about internal cultural shifts and winning political arguments, universities and colleges need to be thinking about how they’re projecting their cultures to prospective students from a wide range of backgrounds.

Although HE doesn’t feel accessible for everyone, more broadly, students are ahead of the curve on flexible, integrated education. According to Pearson’s global survey, students are already, increasingly, learning flexibly. Ellen Wilson says that learners are “taking control of education themselves and they have a do-it-yourself mindset”: they’re comfortable with online degrees, short courses and bitesize learning. If universities and colleges want the future to be tertiary, perhaps they should follow the lead of their students. Structurally supporting more students through the flexible pathways they’re already creating would be a helpful way forward.

Andy reports that “other countries are astonished by the complexity of our tertiary education system”. Along with listening to students, it seems important to simplify this vastly complex, conflicting and mystifying tertiary system which, by virtue of its complexity, creates barriers to porous learning.

Leave a Reply