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Wicked problems: are universities really prepared to grow in the next decade?

A once in a generation chance to grow participation in HE lies ahead in the next decade. Mark Corver, Debbie McVitty and Tim Blackman ask whether HE is prepared to handle it
This article is more than 4 years old

Mark Corver is the founder of dataHE and the former director of analysis and research at UCAS

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

Tim Blackman is the vice chancellor of The Open University.

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.

8 responses to “Wicked problems: are universities really prepared to grow in the next decade?

  1. One of the key impacts of the fixed tuition fee (and capped numbers in Scotland) seems to be the fixation with growing student numbers as if this is the only option and often without serious consideration of the real cost of acquisition and delivery, and the damage to the student experience, brand and reputation.

    Institutions (and the wider sector) need to consider more carefully how they strategically evaluate their role and purpose and current delivery. Then with clarity approach the opportunities and challenges. This might mean a radical shake up in the curriculum to deliver better efficiency (and adapt to a rapidly changing world) aligned with a regional approach to serving our communities that is built on partnerships that benefit everyone. Savings can be invested in new innovative curriculum and underpinned by world-leading research that can build reputation and brand, attracting high quality applicants and commanding a premium in international markets.

  2. One challenge I see is the (lack of) alignment between metrics and outcomes. If rankings or OFS drive pursuit of artificial metrics such as staff:student ratio, then it potentially enshrines a level of inefficiency and calcification (or gamification) of educational model development. The OU is a glorious example a different model, not without its own challenges, but an important one.

    It’s time to accelerate scrapping the old metrics and moving to more outcome focused ones, and at the same time cut the amount of reporting and liberate institutions to find different routes to success or failure.

  3. Thanks for the useful contributions, all. Mark, would you mind explaining what you mean by the “erosion of real unit resource”? Apologies for being dim!

  4. Huw – sorry that wasn’t clear. I meant that the current funding systems find it hard to keep per-student levels of resourcing through time after adjusting for inflation. For example, in England the political tension around the fee/debt system has meant the fee has had only a small increase from £9,000 to £9,250 between 2012 and 2019. If it had simply tracked inflation (that is stayed constant in ‘real’ terms) then it would have risen to £10,700 (RPI, bit less on CPI – I doubt either properly reflect how much university input costs have been increasing).

    So universities this year have around £1,500 less per student, nearly £5,000 over a 3 year course, to deliver the same quality of experience than they had in 2012.

    Our argument is that this happens under the current systems because Governments have to incur an annual cost (fiscal and political) to increase resource. So the understandable temptation is to choose not to. You get similar dynamics in grant based system which tend, over time, to ask universities to take more students for the same level of real funding.

    If the unit of resource gets eroded over time then, at some point (after all the efficiencies, etc have been achieved), quality of what is being delivered is likely to be hit. This then starts to impair the key asset of a world-leading HE system that you started with.

  5. Very interesting set of views on why the coming increase in the size of cohorts of 18 year-olds is not the simple answer to the sector’s problems that it might appear. But I would add one more point. While, as you suggest Debbie, “pretty much as is, except bigger” is a feasible scenario for the sector as a whole, it is unlikely to be the case for every individual institution. When the sector last grew significantly, there were number controls – which ensured that growth was relatively evenly distributed. We are in a very different world now and it’s surely likely that even if demand increases and alternatives to full-time HE remain at the margins, growth will be wildly unevenly distributed. Indeed it’s entirely possible that while some universities are able to expand, others will remain caught in a downward spiral of reduced admissions, lower budgets, and deteriorating student experience. How we regulate that system in ways that allow both student choice and diversity to be fostered, will be the key to the future success of the sector.

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