2013 was set to be defined as a year of tightening belts, efficiencies and tougher market pressures as austerity started to pinch; and then came the Autumn Statement. An historic announcement that this Government was going to remove any limits to the number of students going to university and, furthermore, that this expansion would be fully funded. Wow. As children were opening their advent calendars and Vice Chancellors were steadying themselves for another tight year ahead, this Government takes the economic and moral high ground and invests in an ambitious and optimistic future for the UK. Happy Christmas everyone!
“In 2013 we have seen the highest ever number of students enter higher education.”
The evidence is compelling: expansion of higher education is good both for the individual and the economy. Every time we expanded the university system there have been those who predict an oversupply of graduates will bring down rates of return and average graduate wages but this has never actually happened. Even when we doubled participation rates in the early 1990s to reach the dizzy heights of 30% of young people going to university, graduate returns held up. And the release of the end of cycle report from UCAS shows that demand for higher education continues to grow. In 2013 we have seen the highest ever number of students enter higher education, including a rise in the number of disadvantaged students getting into university. This is a hugely positive story on its own, but serendipitous when coupled with the announcement to remove the student number cap.
From where I’m sitting, this is a victory for evidence over rhetoric. A Government demonstrating they are willing to lead public opinion, not follow. An unprecedented commitment that recognises the full cost of a high quality university offer and that ‘cut price’ HE does not work. A deeply democratising commitment that says ‘if you are qualified and able to go to university, go ahead, we’ll loan you the money to do so and carry the risk if it doesn’t work out for you’; the restoration of the Robbins Principle 50 years after it was first established.
“The Government is putting higher education at the heart of their ambitious vision for the future.”
Does this mean extra money for universities? Does this mean that belts can be loosened to accommodate Christmas? Not exactly. The Coalition have made a principled commitment to expand higher education and have then found a way to finance this on a fully-funded basis through the sale of historic loan books. Unfortunately it doesn’t work the other way around. You cannot imagine the Government saying ‘we’re going to sell the loan book and despite the fiscal deficit and other competing public investment priorities, we’re going to give the money back to the HE sector and ask you how you’d like to spend it’. A few billion on research? A few billion to TSB to drive the economic impact of research? Whilst these are worthy investments and I’m sure a strong case can (and has) been made for additional investment, we remain in the grip of austerity where many good and justifiable investments cannot be made.
The difference with the Autumn Statement announcement is that the Government is not just investing in a ‘good’ thing that would be nice to have, it is putting higher education at the heart of their ambitious vision for the future of the UK economy. A high-skill, highly innovative workforce where graduate-intensive industries deliver wealth creation and job creation. All the evidence would suggest they are right to do so. Yes, we need to do more to encourage the utilisation of graduates in our economy and yes, we need a healthy, competitive, diverse research base to support innovation but at the heart of the issue is the fact that human capital is now the primary indicator of future economic growth. As Obama said recently ‘those who out-educate us today, will out-perform us tomorrow’ and he is right.
“A high-skill, highly innovative workforce where graduate-intensive industries deliver wealth creation and job creation.”
By making a commitment to fully fund the expansion of higher education, this Government is not putting the rest of the HE budget at risk, it is not downgrading its commitment to the science budget, it is saying something far more positive: that it believes in the potential of a nation and is choosing to invest in a high-skill, high-wage, more prosperous future. Expansion of higher education is both an economic and a moral imperative. Given Labour’s record on this issue, we may be close to a political consensus on the need for fully funded expansion of higher education – a consensus that will lead public opinion.
Of course we will continue to have doubters. Of course we will have those that will argue this is all about the re-classification of graduate jobs or that graduate unemployment will rise and wages will fall but I’m confident that the future will speak for itself. I’m confident that more innovative, creative and resilient graduate cohorts will come out and drive change in ways we can only imagine. Whether we face revolution, evolution or more disruptive technologies we cannot predict but we can be certain that a degree is the best preparation for a more uncertain future. I, for one, would not wish to deny that opportunity to any individual that has the ability to benefit from a high quality higher education experience that will, most likely, transform their lives.
So a message of hope from the Government to end 2013. A message of optimism and ambition for our future. Let us try and join the Government on its economic and moral high ground. Let us remind ourselves to stand up for the future of our students and the prosperity of our nation. Let us try and keep this perspective as we enjoy some Christmas cheer and start to answer some of the questions that lay ahead for 2014.