UA Speech: The future of Higher Education

Speech by Maddalaine Ansell, University Alliance Chief Executive, responding to Lord Willetts

Part of the 2017 Speaker’s Lecture Series hosted at Speaker’s House, Palace of Westminster

Higher Education is a highly emotive subject. We saw that in the number of peers who spoke in the recent debates about the Higher Education and Research Bill – and the extent to which their interventions were based as much in values and emotions as in evidence.

This is in part because many of us experience higher education at a particularly intense period of our lives – when we are ceasing to be children, dependent on our parents, and are becoming independent adults. At university, we may experience rapid emotional development – for example falling in love for the first time.

Lord Willetts wrote in his book “The Pinch” that many of the songs that are rated highly in “best-ever” charts are the songs that the Baby Boomers listened to when they were teenagers and young adults. They formed the soundtrack to the most intense years of their lives and so have strong emotional resonance for them – which can be confused with artistic merit.

In the context of higher education, there can be a strong attachment to our own university experience which may make it hard for us to explore impartially what should happen in the future. There can also be a surprising reliance on anecdotal, partial or out of date information to form views. Far too many interventions at higher education meetings begin with “when I was at university…”

This is a very limited form of evidence – because higher education has changed hugely over the last few decades.

The first change is, of course, the number of people who now go to university. In 1960, the rate stood at only four percent of the population. This had two important consequences: It was possible for higher education to be fully funded out of general taxation; A university degree could be a passport not only to a graduate job, which was then a much more clearly defined concept, but also to being part of the social elite. For the vast majority of students, this meant keeping the status of their parents. For a few, it provided an opportunity to move to a higher social class.

Today, nearly half of all young people go to university. And many of them will borrow more than £40,000 to pay for it. Evidence from the Institute of Fiscal Studies suggests that the “graduate premium” – the additional earnings that people can expect because they have a degree – is holding up. Nevertheless, the average figures mask considerable variation between individual experience, and there is much greater anxiety about whether going to university is “worth” the investment.

The numbers going to university also mean it’s less of a social marker. So many people go to university that it is no longer a signal of “class” – whatever that means in modern Britain. Some are combatting this by arguing that too many people are now going to university. Others try to create a hierarchy within the diversity of our new system. I have observed that it is very common in higher education meetings, and any gathering in public life where the subject crops up, for someone to begin a sentence, “my son/daughter… who is at a Russell Group university tells me…”.

The second change is the increased diversity in higher education provision – arising both from the entry of new institutions into the sector and to existing institutions evolving.

In 1960, there were 24 universities in the UK. In 2017, there are more than 150.

The subjects offered are more varied. In addition to degrees in history, English, maths and chemistry it is now possible to study nursing, graphic design, performance arts and agriculture. Most of the degrees now offered by UK universities could be described as technical and professional rather than purely academic. One of the reasons why policy makers still insist on seeing academic and technical education as separate pathways is that too many of them are only familiar with the more traditional part of the sector.

This can mean they are also out of date in their understanding of pedagogy. Where it used to be based in classrooms, lecture rooms and labs, many students now learn in work-based environments – whether real or simulated. Where individuals usually worked alone in libraries, it is now common for students to work in teams solving real world problems.

The third change is a shift in what we think university should be for. Here is John Henry Newman….

If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society… It is the education which gives a man a clear, conscious view of their own opinions and judgements, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought to detect what is sophistical and to discard what is irrelevant.”

He was writing in 1852 when university was only for men, largely only for Anglicans (although UCL was founded in 1826) and only for the wealthy.

More recently, Stephen Fry said something quite similar: “A university is not, thank heavens, a place for vocational instruction, it has nothing to do with training for a working life and career, it is a place for education, something quite different.”

There is an alternative view – put forward eloquently by Harold Wilson in his famous “White Heat” speech – which, for a number of reasons, has considerable resonance today.

“There is no more dangerous illusion than the comfortable doctrine that the world owes us a living…whenever we run into trouble we can rely on a special relationship with someone or other to bail us out. From now on Britain will have just as much influence in the world as we can earn, as we deserve.”

He argued that the best way for us to earn our living in this new world is by embracing technology and that this required – among other things – a tremendous expansion of higher education. This led to a ttruly exciting period of state driven innovation in education – supporting new university foundations, creating the polytechnics and the Open University all in the space of a few years. Many of the polytechnics were sited in industrial areas where they could reflect the beating heart of existing local industry and work in partnership with the new industries Britain sought to create.

According to surveys of modern day students, they are closer to Harold Wilson than Stephen Fry. The main reason they give for studying at university is to get a job.

These days, when every penny of taxpayers’ money has to be justified, there is also considerable discussion of the wider benefits of higher education to society. These include not only higher tax receipts and greater productivity but also non-economic benefits such as better civic engagement (graduates are less likely to commit crime and more likely to vote, volunteer and trust and tolerate others). These qualities seem more important than ever as we seek to build a post-Brexit Global Britain.

So higher education has already been through a tremendous period of change. The recent reforms – began by Lord Willetts when he was universities minister and currently being given legislative underpinning by Jo Johnson – are intended to facilitate further innovation – in particular by making it easier for new providers to enter the market.

The hope is that new providers will create new and innovative forms of education. Some will offer no-frills degrees that are considerably cheaper, others will make creative use of new technology and yet others will come up with as yet un-thought of alternatives to the traditional 3 or 4 year residential degree. This new competition will also (it is hoped) challenge existing higher education providers to up their game.

The same policy makers believe this will only work if students are able to act as consumers. When students were getting their education for free, they didn’t complain. Now they are paying for it, they will demand a better deal. But complaining is toothless if it doesn’t sit alongside high quality information before you buy, a choice of where to go and the ability to take your money somewhere else if you aren’t happy with what you are getting. Most of the recent reforms – from removing student number controls to the Teaching Excellence Framework – have this in mind.

Not everyone is convinced this will work. Some question the magic of the market – particularly in relation to something as complicated as higher education. Or, to put it a different way, there are so many market failures in higher education that it needs considerable state intervention before it can deliver everything we want from it.

So far, the vast majority of new providers have chosen to confine themselves to classroom-based subjects such as business studies and law. I can’t think of any new provider that is as innovative and exciting as the universities within my mission group. And this is not surprising. They are large enough to take risks, experienced at working with key partners and have never lost the challenger mindset which says that they must work harder for recognition and prestige.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that it isn’t right to explore how best to make universities deliver for students – and indeed wider society.

So I am willing to give the government credit for trying to make our system open to innovation – and to accept that this is not at all easy given our very high demands for what higher education should deliver.

But their efforts are if anything too limited when looked at in the context of the challenges that face us today.

With rapid advances in machine learning, robots are increasingly replacing human labour. Globalisation causes collateral damage as whole industries move overseas. Technology advances so rapidly that no sooner have you got the hang of one system, it is obsolete.

All this sits alongside a longstanding skills and productivity issue. The UK is at the bottom of the G7 table. While increasing numbers of young people are going to university, too many are still being left behind.

This suggests that we need to completely rethink our whole system for education. It is no longer just something that young people do to prepare themselves for their adult lives but something that we must all do throughout our whole lives. In this world, education – including higher education – must be available in ways that are more flexible and more affordable. Some argue for education to be offered in bite-sized packages that the student studies as required and which will eventually be threaded together to form certificates, degrees and doctorates. At the very least we need to recognise that the old distinction between academic and technical/professional is unhelpful and create pathways that give students the skills of both.

There is, however, a competing narrative – equally compelling. This one points out the grand challenges facing humanity: climate change, population growth, food security, microbial resistance. We are living unsustainable lives but we carry on partly because it’s really hard to change and partly because most of us are crossing our fingers that some people somewhere are carrying out the research that we need to solve these problems. We also need an education system that will prepare people to tackle these challenges. It is likely to be helpful if these people acquire a large body of knowledge early on and then spend the rest of their lives expanding and applying it. As we need the very best people looking at this, we need to make sure we are drawing them from the whole population and not only from the 7% that go to private schools.

So where does this leave us? I will make three propositions:

We do not have too many people going to university. The future is, of course, uncertain. But all the indicators suggest that individuals and countries will do better if they are able to compete in the knowledge economy – whether through becoming expert researchers into global challenges or highly adaptable skilled individuals

Secondly, let’s recognise that higher education for most people now means advanced technical or professional education. This is “academic” in that it involves solving new problems (for example by discovering innovations in engineering), thinking critically about how practice can be improved (for example in nursing, teaching or business) or understanding how a sector fits within society (fashion designed for people with disabilities). Of course, pure academic education still exists and I am wholly in favour of people being able to study English, history or mathematics – but we must both recognise that it is no longer the default option. Equally, we should accept that we need many of those studying technical and professional subjects at school to aspire to a degree and even a professional doctorate.

Finally, we must continue to embrace innovation. Higher education has traditionally been bad at this. In the early 20th century, classicists sneered at PPE students – something I would never dare to do now! Pre-war PhDs were seen by some as a silly German idea. Later, old universities looked down at new ones and tried to shut them out of competitions for research funding. If we want to thrive in a difficult world, we will have to accept that higher education cannot stay the same as when we were young – however comforting. It must change to meet the changing needs of a world in transition.


Notes for editors

1. University Alliance, Britain’s universities for cities and regions
University Alliance brings together a group of universities with a common mission to make the difference to their cities and regions. We use our experience of providing high quality teaching and research with real world impact to shape higher education and research policy for the benefit of our students and business and civic partners. We innovate together, learn from each other, and support every member to transform lives and deliver growth. Visit

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