What does the tertiary turn in higher education policy mean in practice?

Across the UK post-compulsory education policy is adopting a more "tertiary" approach - but how tertiary is defined shapes what happens in policy and practice. Chris Millward synthesises the reflections of an expert panel

Chris Millward is Professor of Practice in Education Policy at the University of Birmingham

Research and policy relating to post-compulsory education increasingly refers to a single “tertiary system” rather than separate sectors of “higher education” and “technical and vocational education and training”, or “further education” in the UK terminology.

Why is this happening now and how might it influence policy across the UK and beyond during the coming years?

These questions were posed at a plenary panel session of the international conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) in Birmingham last week – the first held in person since the pandemic. I was joined on the panel by Peter Scott, author of a recent book exploring the path towards universal tertiary education, Ellen Hazelkorn and Andy Westwood, who have argued for unified governance of tertiary education, including across a devolved landscape in England, and Huw Morris, who was an influential contributor, alongside Ellen, to the establishment of a Commission for Tertiary Education and Research in Wales.

The panel identified three different conceptions of the shift towards tertiary thinking:

  1. For some people, the encouragement of alternative forms of post-compulsory education through a unified tertiary system is a conservative project. It positions governments and universities to prevent over-expansion and adulteration of universities, and to preserve access for those who already most benefit from them. Far from moving forward to universal access, this is a retreat.
  2. For others, it is historical evolution. First there were “universities”, then they became part of “higher education”. This is now broadening out to all forms of “tertiary education”. Just as technical colleges, polytechnics and the training of nurses, teachers and accountants have been folded into higher education, so it is now extending to other forms of technical and vocational education and training. This widens access, but it also sustains a hierarchy of institutions, knowledge and learners.
  3. There is then a more progressive, even radical, vision that opens the door to universal access. Within this approach, tertiary education becomes a dynamic and inclusive eco-system, comprising diverse institutions and missions bound together in a web of networks of learner pathways and innovation partnerships, which build demand among employers as well as responding to their needs. This is facilitated by funding and regulatory arrangements that encourage institutions to balance their interest in national and international hierarchies with regional collaboration.

Systems thinking

The concept of a “system” across post-compulsory education is not new. For example, the 1960 masterplan for the University of California system, enabling pathways through community colleges to universities with applied and research missions, continues to influence approaches to expanding post-compulsory education today. New Zealand has had a single Tertiary Education Commission since 2003 and Scotland merged its separate further and higher education agencies into the Scottish Funding Council in 2005.

The current credit and qualifications frameworks, which are intended to enable progression through all levels of post-compulsory education, have been operating in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, and across Europe, since 2008.

Notwithstanding this, momentum appears to be building for further integration of funding, regulation, institutions and provision across post-compulsory education. In addition to the new Commission in Wales, Scotland is promoting coherence across its further and higher education sectors and Ireland is now exploring a unified tertiary education sector. Measures to enable this also appear likely to be prominent within the imminent Australian Universities Accord.

In England, policies influenced by the independent review of post-18 education (the Augar review) point towards a system-wide approach, notably the establishment of a Lifelong Learning Entitlement for all forms of learning from intermediate to higher levels. There is, though, no plan to unify the fragmented student, employer and government driven approaches to funding and regulating higher education, apprenticeships and further education, nor to align them with the growing responsibilities of regional authorities, which have comparable populations to Scotland and Wales but far less scope to meet their own needs.

An idea whose time has come?

We identified three reasons why the government is focusing on the tertiary right now: expanding opportunity, addressing skills gaps, and greater coherence of post-compulsory provision.

The expansion of higher education is diminishing the opportunities for people who do not go to university and the prosperity of places with low proportions of graduates. Universities are stimulating educational progression in their surrounding communities and attracting young people from other areas, then both retaining and attracting graduates and investment. This is leading to a concentration of highly skilled jobs and wages, and polarisation between people and places based on educational qualifications. Tertiary thinking can address this by creating pathways between the cities where universities are mainly based and the industrial and coastal towns, as well as rural areas, that often rely on colleges.

In competitive systems driven by choice, students and providers are consolidating around study options with the greatest recognition and individual returns. Full-time full-degree studies are squeezing out intermediate level, shorter-cycle technical and vocational education. This yields skills gaps in relation to the jobs that require medium-level knowledge and skills, within which people, rather than technologies, often drive innovation. Tertiary systems need not necessarily balance competition with collaboration and progression between colleges and universities. They are, though, being promoted by governments and regional authorities that say they want to encourage this and to align provision to their particular economic, public service and cultural missions.

Reflecting demand, the boundaries between vocational, technical, professional and academic education are becoming increasingly porous. Structures across tertiary education have, though, been slow to adapt, leaving learners and employers to navigate separate institutions, funding models and regulatory arrangements. Tertiary oversight can facilitate more coherent pathways through the different parts of post-compulsory education, whilst also removing duplication and encouraging rationalisation. This is becoming increasingly important as universities and colleges face challenges to their sustainability due to flat or reducing student numbers, real terms reductions to their income for each student and rising costs.

Conception shapes implementation

The different conceptions of tertiary education inevitably influence the design and implementation of tertiary systems. In Wales, the new Commission embraces basic and informal learning from age 16 to all ages, as well as research funding. Scotland has the potential for similar scope if it implements the Withers review proposals to integrate its investment in skills training with other forms of further and higher education. Delivery of the more progressive conception of tertiary education is likely, though, to require not just a single strategy and integrated agency, but also measures to strengthen technical and vocational education and regional capabilities, as well as greater harmonisation of quality, student finance and institutional funding arrangements, underpinned by credit accumulation and transfer.

In England, the current government’s encouragement for learners to choose apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications rather than university degrees may be associated with the conservative conception of tertiary education, though its implementation is hampered by the fragmented approach to funding and regulation across further education, apprenticeships and higher education. This could, though, change after next year’s general election, not least given the Labour party’s substantial polling lead and its oversight of the tertiary legislation passed in Wales.

Previous Labour governments have adopted a system-wide approach to education policy, notably the tri-partite schools system implemented following the 1944 Education Act, the binary system within the 1965 plan for polytechnics and the 1998 vision of a Learning Age, within which learners would be supported to progress through further education colleges and universities throughout life. These policies may be more associated with the historical conception of tertiary education than the progressive one. They succeeded in widening access across the post-compulsory education system without fundamental integration of the different pathways.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has decided to create space between his ambitions for education policy and the current government’s approach in England, saying in this year’s party conference speech:

My Dad felt the disrespect of vocational skills all his life…but the solution is not and never will be levelling-down the working-class aspiration to go to university.

At minimum, this signals further historical evolution by widening access to higher education whilst strengthening technical and vocational education. It could, though, become a more progressive vision if it is accompanied by greater devolution to and commissioning by regional authorities, situated within a national framework for the regulation and funding of all forms of tertiary education.

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