Since the surge in support for the Labour Party, with its manifesto promise to abolish tuition fees, those who oppose the current system have smelt blood. After countless attacks, the government has agreed to hold a major review of higher education funding. This is not a bad thing as long as the government is brave enough to focus on the real problems.
Right, but not perfect
The current funding system for higher education is fundamentally the right one. By removing number controls, it has enabled more students, including from disadvantaged backgrounds, to go to university. Because all universities have been allowed to charge up to £9,000, poorer students, who typically go to modern universities, are getting the same investment in their education as their richer counterparts at older institutions.
For the same reason, we have achieved the same level of investment in professional and technical education (at least when studied in university) as we have in more academic subjects. The system has also allowed for the growth of a diverse higher education sector whose excellence extends well beyond the few universities that make it into the top ten of global league tables.
In 2010, a UCL report found that 97% of mothers in the UK hoped that their children would enter higher education. It is essential not only that routes stay open to them but that they have more (not less) choice about where and what to study.
Of course, the system isn’t perfect. It is clear that many students are struggling to support themselves while they study and many universities talk about the challenge of making sure that students who have to live at home and work during term time benefit from the full student experience. It is timely that NUS is running its Student Poverty Commission and we hope it sheds light on the issues and makes strong recommendations.
Nevertheless, the review should focus on the very real problem of the decline in mature learners and the linked issue of incentivising flexible provision.
Where are the mature students?
In relation to mature learners, we saw a further drop of 40% in applications this year. As many mature students used to study at Levels 4 and 5, there has been a decline in demand for these courses and an increase in complaints from employers that they cannot recruit sufficient people at this level. In some industries where the current workforce is approaching retirement, this is becoming critical. The government is trying to tackle this through the creation of a small number of Institutes of Technology. While these may turn out to play a useful role in some areas, fundamentally they are solving the wrong problem.
We are not short of institutions that are capable of delivering qualifications at this level rather we are short of students who want to study them within the current system. This is likely to be linked to debt-aversion in older learners who are reluctant to take out loans (almost £1 billion of the FE loans budget remains unspent), lack of careers advice, particularly for people who left school long ago, and insufficient flexibility of provision.
Innovation in provision has not been as moribund as is sometimes claimed. Degree Apprenticeships have gained real impetus since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. Across University Alliance, more than 120 degree apprenticeship programs are now up and running with another 80 or so in development.
Even before the promise of funding flexibility for accelerated degrees, some Alliance universities had developed courses and are open to creating more if there is demand. For example, Coventry University offers many courses in a modular form which can be done intensively, over three years or over a longer time span depending on what works for the student.
Nevertheless, if we are serious about offering students genuine opportunity and choice, we should promote collaboration between different institutions. Mature students are likely to be far less mobile than their younger counterparts so it is the local offer that will matter to them. There are already examples of good practice. The University of Hertfordshire, through its partnership with Oaklands College, makes it possible for students to study part-time or full-time either towards a full degree or a higher education certificate or diploma.
The University of South Wales, through its work with five colleges across south-east Wales, delivers industry-relevant courses to around 3,000 students who otherwise might not have been able to access higher education. Sheffield Hallam University is leading the South Yorkshire Futures programme which seeks to raise attainment across the region by helping parties to collaborate and focus on common goals.
Local industrial strategies could provide a vehicle for other areas to think about how best to use all the resources already in their area more strategically to meet the needs of local people and industry.
Alongside this, we need to recognise that education is not a linear process – nor are people best served by following either an academic or technical pathway. The future world of work is very uncertain but it is highly likely that today’s young people will need to retrain several times across their careers – and it is very probable that they will need both knowledge and skills and to acquire new skills at different levels and in different ways.
While we recognise that there has to be some system of rationing the amount of education that is supported by the taxpayer, the time may have come to jettison the principle that people shouldn’t be funded a second time to study at an equivalent or lower level. It is no longer helpful. Higher education funding should be as flexible as possible, allowing for people to study for both academic and technical qualifications and to study at different levels at different times – or even concurrently.
Some degree students would benefit from doing a lower level apprenticeship alongside their degree as it would teach them complementary skills and enable them to earn a little money while they learn – but currently, the funding system does not allow for a blended model.
The sector has undergone a lot of reform in recent years. If we are going to have a major review of funding, let’s tackle the real problems.