Students and higher education beyond 2015

Based on her comments last night at GuildHE’s Annual Conference, NUS President Toni Pearce recasts the role of students, universities and society in the big debates the sector are having about markets, competition and engagement. Through challenging policy pressures today, and an uncertain period heading towards a General Election, Toni calls on the sector to – without waiting for politicians – start playing a greater leadership role in society based on a deeper connection with the values and expectations of students now and in the future.
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The really big thinking about the education policy landscape right now is focussed on whether we can rely on the market to deliver a post-compulsory education system that works for society.

Clearly we can’t rely solely on the market and few would suggest that should. Although there is a deeply embedded narrative about competition and student consumer power. For example, you will notice a serious reluctance among policymakers to engage with the possible implications for students and higher education providers of the Consumer Rights Act.

However, there is a new, emerging consensus about a programme of activities that require some level of government or funding council intervention such as postgraduate study.

My generation has the lowest levels of trust in politicians that has been seen in a long time. Our polling tells us that while the majority of students intend to use their vote in the General Election in 2015, most of those who intend to vote have no idea who they will vote for.

So it would make little sense for me to advocate that control of higher education should be solely in the hands of the state.

Particularly because students won’t just vote on education issues. They will vote on the environment, health, and immigration, just like the rest of the public. But more than anything, they will vote on jobs.

They will vote for a party that can offer them something better than low-skilled work or the graduate rat race: something worth voting for.

To care about employment is not to be self-interested or instrumental about learning. Meaningful work is the thing we all care about the most. Many of you in the sector care about education so much you decided to make it your work. We make the things we care about our work, if we are lucky enough to have the opportunity.

Higher education is no longer about having the luxury of time and space to develop the mind and the self, if it ever was. It is about the frantic avoidance of falling into the desperate cycle of work that does not even pay a living wage. So the student experience, for many, is one of intense preparation to compete for scarce jobs on graduation. It is about survival of the fittest, not about becoming a contributing member of a healthy society.

I don’t want the young people from where I grew up and went to college with be stuck with living in a world where the logic of cuts and austerity demands the targeting of immigrants, benefit claimants and job seekers.

They should not live in a world where they cannot be confident that their education, on which they have invested so much, will not prepare them for life in meaningful work that they care about.

And crucially, I do not want them to live in a world where the decision-makers are compromised and where the prospect of change feels like a hopeless dream.

We need to have an unfashionable conversation about the public value of education – and the trust that education institutions hold, to promote and defend the public value of what they do – this is not a new agenda.

Even the funding council has now chosen to prioritise an approach that promotes the value of universities in wider society, through their thinking on the idea of anchor institutions.

The idea that higher education providers, through their teaching, research and knowledge exchange, contribute immeasurably not just to local, regional and national economies but to community cohesion, to the flourishing of the arts and cultural life of the nation, to public education and insight, to social enterprise and the spread of ideas, and fundamentally to making us all more human, and more humane.

And ultimately that while it is easy to dismiss this agenda by saying that this is what higher education does already, the reality is that students are telling us that the message they get from their institutions is more concerned with the bottom line than with public value.

You may argue that there is no incentive to occupy this space; that institutions have to be pragmatic and financially sustainable. And I agree. I don’t want higher education providers to financially cripple themselves – in fact I don’t think that would be a very public-spirited act.

I’m asking you to be pragmatic, to be hard-nosed even, in seeing why this work is so crucially important and how it can align with other key drivers of your work.

First, the case needs to be made for continued public funding of innovation and knowledge exchange infrastructure. That means an in-depth understanding of return on investment and having a clear sense of direction about how our innovation system should evolve.

Without a trajectory and a sense of urgency, public funding won’t happen. It has to be in the sector’s hands, not ministers, because how can they possibly know what needs to be done?

Second, the idea of the student experience has to be integrated with an agenda that recognises the role of higher education institutions in enabling economic and social dynamism and opportunity.

At NUS we think that students deserve engaging teaching, adequate learning resources and the right balance of facilitated learning, peer learning and independent study hours to build their intellectual resilience, professional practice and self-efficacy.

And notwithstanding that the delivery of those things to a diverse and demanding student body is a challenge in itself, doesn’t that picture look rather limited? Is that all we can say of UK higher education, that it’s a low-risk investment? You can be reasonably sure you’ll have a decent experience and achieve some solid learning outcomes?

I think we can do better.

The student engagement agenda has proven that it is possible to ask for more from students. More, that there are students who are clamouring to be allowed to lead on effecting change in their learning environment and their community.

The idea of students as partners, as co-creators of learning spaces, approaches and curricula does not position students as experts in academic disciplines or professional practices, but it does acknowledge that for learning to be meaningful students have to have a stake in it, and some level of responsibility for shaping their learning to a wider set of values and purposes.

It is time to take student leadership, enterprise, community engagement and volunteering out of the realm of the extra-curricular and make it a core part of the learning experience, where we can.

This can be about employability, if you like. Employers are always grumbling that graduates don’t come to them with the leadership and communication skills or industry insight they would want.

There are challenges to that narrative, especially for some institutions, but the fact remains that students are going to be very attuned to what employers are saying.

However there is a bigger picture to think about and that’s that the experience of being part of something greater than yourself, of being part of a shared agenda or project, of making a change or having an impact in a difficult situation is the kind of experience that is bigger than questions about value for money; in fact it is priceless.

And it is what we should be offering to students as part of their experience of studying in a UK institution.

We need to build up civic life again, and develop a generation that asks for more than the grim status quo and that believes in its own capacity to demand and lead change.

If you can advocate and participate in the public debate, that’s great. But if you can’t then at least consider how the education you offer can build up the courage and resilience of your students to challenge the deal they are currently being offered.

If I could create a student experience survey, it would ask students about how their values and perspectives have been changed by higher education, about the opportunities that have been afforded them to be part of a social change, and about the connections they have made through the networks they have formed, whether as researchers, activists, volunteers or employees on a placement.

I do not think this idea is a pipe dream or unrealistic. I think it is what we will see coming into higher education in the next five years, as students and institutions become ever more demoralised and disenchanted with market competition and as we hunt for greater meaning in the learning experience.

By involving students from the beginning you offer something unique and exciting, something that takes traditional learning approaches and builds on them to offer the opportunity to do something with learning, something that contributes to the general improvement of our society.

I have little confidence that the post 2015 policy landscape will deliver this. But I think we have to be canny in how we seek to influence politicians and be pragmatic in that the demand for evidence of impact isn’t going anywhere.

Let’s take these basic challenges and build an agenda in partnership with students and higher education providers that offers us all something better than simply waiting for the politicians to ‘get it right’.

This piece is based on remarks first made at the GuildHE Annual Conference ‘Higher Education post-2015’ on 11th November 2014.

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