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Drive for change

Chris Millward suggests ways to unblock the university superhighway

Thanks to rail strikes, many of us have spent more time than expected on the roads over the past few weeks, which may find echoes in the coming year for higher education. Working in a 21st-century university can feel much like driving around a complex road network, requiring navigation between different disciplines, modes and levels of study and between partners locally, nationally and internationally—plus frequent lane changes between education and research, indeed often straddling the two.

In England, the expansion of higher education has increased its size, diversity and complexity. Universities and government met the increase in tuition fees 10 years ago—and the removal of student number controls that followed—with a mix of anticipation and trepidation. University leaders looked forward to greater freedom and ministers to the rigour of the open market, but both were also concerned that volatility could threaten some universities’ sustainability.

These concerns have largely proved unfounded. English higher education has continued to grow in response to the unconstrained ambitions of students and their families, together with the government’s prioritisation of investment in R&D. Universities have, for the most part, shown an ability to navigate a more complex environment, albeit within a new regulatory landscape designed to reassure students and taxpayers.

Keeping things moving

The point of the regulator established by the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 was not to reduce or consolidate the flow of higher education traffic but to keep it flowing safely. In the words of the Office for Students’ first regulatory framework: “No amount of central direction could guarantee the future success of the higher education sector.” But this could be facilitated by “creating the conditions that enable the sector to deliver an excellent education to all”.

In a similar vein, the 2019 Augar review intended to make the system more financially sustainable while broadening opportunities for progression into and through higher education. This would be achieved by investing beyond the most congested highways to improve the accessibility and quality of neglected routes, underpinned by a single loan entitlement enabling learners to move through different types and levels of study at variable speeds throughout life.

When it ultimately published its response to the review, the government took a different approach. It proposed entry controls, rather than incentives, which would direct traffic away from higher education. Further education and apprenticeships would be positioned separately from universities, rather than connected to and enabling progression through them as part of the same system.

This would take us in the opposite direction to many other countries, which are integrating their technical and academic routes in response to demand from students and employers.

Roadblocks

It remains unclear whether entry controls will ultimately be implemented. But the past year has been one of increasing obstacles in higher education, with proposals to end courses that fail to lead to higher earnings, to regulate campus free speech and to apply restrictions to international students and international collaboration. Inflation has meanwhile eroded student and university incomes.

Universities were never likely to be as free as they expected 10 years ago, nor ministers as willing to rely on the market. A permanent tension exists between the public character of higher education and the desire to promote market forces, which leads governments to intervene more than anyone wants.

This appears, though, to have been compounded in England by the government’s concerns about the cost of the system, together with its changing attitude towards markets and universities through the process of the UK’s departure from the EU.

Boris Johnson’s government viewed the referendum on Brexit as a rebellion against open labour markets and saw intervention as a way of making Brexit work. Universities rely on the borderless flow of people and knowledge and are populated by staff and students who have benefited from this. Many of them now feel that every route requires brakes to be applied in anticipation of a stop line.

New avenues

If this sounds a grim way to start the year, it does not need to be. The new government appears to be more focused on pragmatism than ideology—and while financial room for manoeuvre is limited, avenues remain available.

The government could, for example, unblock some lanes of traffic by reducing regulation of activities it wants to encourage, such as higher-level and degree apprenticeships, shorter-cycle learning and courses that develop advanced technical and research capabilities.

This could be particularly focused on places where it wants to drive growth by attracting investment through aligning skills and innovation around a university presence.

A precedent also exists for enabling an inflationary fee increase for universities and colleges that can demonstrate excellence beyond a threshold.

Measures such as these could release some of the current pressures on the system while helping the government to achieve its goals.

Give way

Beyond 2023, there is scope to nurture a different relationship between government and universities, shifting from hard stop lines to the continual judgment-based yield and flow that we all experience as we progress through a roundabout.

This would involve close engagement between universities, colleges, local agencies, public services and industry sector bodies, and the alignment of higher education with other areas of policy and investment.

It would develop the local ecosystems of skills and innovation necessary to provide coherent pathways for learners between further education, apprenticeships and higher education throughout life, and to build not just the supply of highly skilled people but also demand for them.

This model is increasingly being pursued in the UK nations beyond England and could be empowered by the greater devolution to local areas promised by both the current government and the Labour opposition. By combining local insights with national oversight, it could truly keep the traffic flowing positively and safely.

Chris Millward is professor of practice in education policy at the University of Birmingham. He was previously director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students and director of policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England.