The Future of British Higher Education

Over the last 20 years, the British higher-education sector has become used to continuous change and it has adapted triumphantly, at least if we consider the sector’s current position as a world leader. But even by historical standards the current rate of policy change in England is extreme and the risks to the sector’s preeminent world position are correspondingly greater.

Now, taken individually, none of the plethora of policy changes currently spinning themselves out is necessarily disastrous. But, taken together, the changes present extraordinary challenges to the higher-education system. We have to adapt our offer to ensure that it even better meets the needs of today’s students (many of whom are part-time, all of whom want a quality education and affordability), we have to do great research, and we have to perform the many different functions that over the last 20 years have become part of university business as usual. I have listed them elsewhere: acting as a forcing ground for economic growth, becoming central nodes in urban and regional economies, producing widening participation, demonstrating research “impact,” working as firefighters for global problems, and becoming international entities. That is before we get to the fact that the system holds an acute responsibility to provide benefits for the broader public realm.

It all might be OK then–or it might not. But the stakes are even higher because these changes are not taking place in a vacuum. There are other big pressures that we must also respond to. Our neighbors in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are introducing reforms that often travel in a different direction. Many countries are investing more than England in their higher-education systems with the avowed intent of producing higher-education institutions that can challenge our position. The need for developed countries to compete for “knowledge jobs” is speeding up: the U.K. ranks just 15th among the 30 OECD countries when it comes to the numbers of people who have higher-level skills. Many believe that education is the key to recovery.

So this is a time of profound change in the English higher-education system, in particular. The government’s decision to postpone or drop a Higher Education Bill which would have enshrined even more changes does not mean that the challenges facing the sector in England will disappear. But it is important to use this pause in legislation to take a step back and provide a strategic response to these challenges. The sector needs to take a breather so that it can work out what it and, more importantly, the country wants–not just now but in the future. That is why I have agreed to lead an independent Commission on the Future of Higher Education for the Institute of Public Policy Research. My fellow colleagues on the panel include members drawn from a mixture of institutions delivering higher education and from the business community. Over the course of the next year we will be issuing a call for evidence, visiting higher-education institutions across the U.K., and attempting to speak to all those who have a stake in the sector.

The commission will explore the really big questions, such as:

  • What is the purpose of higher education?
  • What mix of higher-education institutions do we want?
  • To what extent should the overall structure of the sector be determined by market forces and to what extent should government play a strategic role?
  • If investment in world-class research and teaching is to keep pace with the best in the world in an age of austerity, then how can we pay for it?
  • If universities are public institutions, how should they be governed?
  • What can be done to enhance the status of non-academic tertiary education?

The aim is straightforward. The commission will address the key challenges facing the country’s higher-education sector over the next 20 years and produce policy recommendations that can consolidate and strengthen the position of English universities and colleges in the long term.

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