A once in a generation opportunity
Mark Corver, dataHE
Sometimes the most important problem is the most obvious one. The data is clear. Ever rising young appetite for full-time higher education, and a once-in-a-generation population increase. A decade of sharply higher numbers of those willing and able to go university lies ahead.
Success happily uses one of the UK’s prime “natural resources” – a world-class HE system – to fulfil individual potential and reduce inequality, creating thriving universities pumping powerfully productive graduates into the workforce in the process.
Failure leaves a frustrated generation, enfeebled universities, and an economy running at lower speed than it could.
The sector has an historic opportunity and arguably, duty, to serve this potential in full. But several problems stand in the way. Including the oldest and toughest problem in HE: how to fund this human capital investment when costs loom large and immediate, whilst returns diffuse and distant?
Success seems unlikely if it relies on winning – annually – a growing share of government grant spending against worthy alternatives. The sector, across the UK, needs to propose a model that avoids all of number controls, financial barriers to students, and quality-killing erosion of real unit resource. Not the model the sector would draw up if it were running the country. But one that holds attractions to those that do run the country.
The problem is obvious, many have tackled it, and if the answer were easy it would already be in place. But I don’t believe invention here has been exhausted, and an innovation that gives everyone enough to make it work probably exists. Finding it should have first call on the sector’s problem-solving strengths. Everything else is secondary.
Too much more of the same thing?
Debbie McVitty, Wonkhe
It’s highly likely – though not inevitable – that the projected increase in demand for higher education will be for a traditional full-time undergraduate model, not because this expanded generation of young people will view that model as optimal for their lives and careers, but because as things currently stand other options are not widely available and where they do exist have lower cultural cachet or are perceived as risky.
Growth in demand for a well-established product with a considerable degree of proven success looks at first glance like an opportunity for higher education. The forces of inertia point to everything staying pretty much as is, except bigger.
The problem for governments will be how – or whether – to fund such significant expansion. There remains a perception that increase in participation in higher education robs it of its inherent value, whether in terms of academic standards attained, or in graduate salary returns/productivity dividends.
This fear is exacerbated by doubts about the general suitability of the three or four year full-time model, and about the cost-benefit calculation of particular subjects within that framework. Though many have benefitted from and enjoyed that model it’s not clear that it’s deliverable at scale, that it is necessarily superior to other models or even that the labour market could absorb that number of graduates at a level equivalent with their capabilities at an early enough stage in graduates’ careers.
There’s also an argument that changes in the labour market arising from technological and process innovation, as well as changes to industries, will increase demand for reskilling and upskilling throughout life. This projected demand is less reliable, less predictable, and almost certainly harder for universities to satisfy, as it requires rethinking and redeveloping the sort of provision that is not well incentivised under current funding models, which – especially in England – favour full-time degree-level provision, in established subject areas, generally delivered to school-leavers.
When funding and regulation tend to assume a homogenous model of provision, and market demand for anything different is latent at best, it becomes very challenging indeed for providers to attempt to do anything outside the norm – even when that norm is patently designed for a different era.
It’s possible to imagine a future in which higher education provision looks roughly as it does now, only on a larger scale. Government could adjust the loan repayment system to reduce the public cost of unrepaid student loans, and if no steps were taken to restrict student numbers there’s every possibility that we’d see a repeat of the nineties in which universities took in more students at a declining unit of resource in real terms, but without significantly transforming provision to mitigate against the impact on quality and student experience.
In that scenario, the residential model of higher education would come under pressure as never before, as university services and systems creaked under the strain of delivering anything that looked like a “student experience” at scale. Local councils and regional mayors would likely take radical steps to mitigate the impact of studentification on their local community, with issues around accommodation, nightlife, parking, and access to local services. Student financial hardship – if not addressed through a generous financial settlement – would only worsen.
In a decade’s time – the blink of an eye in historical terms – if nothing significant changes, then higher education may have enjoyed a period of expansion, but its real and perceived value could have seriously declined in the eyes of policymakers and the public. Moreover, the opportunity may have been lost for laying the groundwork for a more radical expansion of diverse forms of higher education, levelling up participation, and increasing the knowledge and skills of a far greater share of the population in a way that the labour market can absorb over time.
We need a green online revolution
Tim Blackman, The Open University
The Open University’s model of online learning combined with small group tuition has long been recognised for the flexibility it provides to learners who are in work, caring for children or with a disability. Its technological innovation enables a wide range of subjects to be taught at a distance, from classical studies to engineering. Yet the climate crisis presents new challenges for higher education beyond access – to which distance learning should also be a solution.
With demographic trends suggesting that many more students could be looking for a higher education place by 2030, it is time to think about the carbon impact of the dominant residential and commuting models of higher education. With rents and fares rising and studentification driving up property prices in many areas, this is an economic as much as an environmental issue.
Building construction has a big carbon footprint; the cement industry for example emits more than three times the carbon dioxide that air travel does. Heating accounts for over 40 per cent of emissions from built up areas. While greener technologies are reducing these impacts, the greenest option is to make better use of existing buildings and reduce travel.
There is much that bricks-and-mortar universities are doing to reduce their carbon footprint, but a recent report by the Association of University Directors of Estates concluded that there is a long way to go. Between 2016/17 and 2017/18 the sector increased its energy consumption, although managed a modest reduction in carbon emissions.
On-line learning is potentially a solution to the environmental impact of a growing higher education sector. Overall, it has been estimated that on-line learning consumes nearly 90 per cent less energy and produces 85 per cent fewer carbon dioxide emissions than campus-based learning, largely due to far less student travel, economies of scale and no additional energy consumption by student housing.
High quality on-line learning needs to be as much part of the green revolution as electric cars and wind turbines.