Charting higher education’s future
If your particular interest is reports on the future of higher education, you will not be starved of material. All over the developed world in particular there have over recent years been numerous inquiries into higher education strategy. Some of these have been influential – perhaps the Review of Australian Higher Education (chaired by Denise Bradley) is a particular example; while others may have somewhat disappointing, such as Ireland’s National Strategy for Higher Education (the Hunt Report), which focused largely on organisation and structure.
The most recent offering in this genre is provided by the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research, an independent think tank considered to be close to the political centre left. In 2012 the IPPR established a rather grandly named ‘Commission on the Future of Higher Education’, chaired by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Warwick, Professor Nigel Thrift. Its terms of reference included an analysis of the purpose of higher education, the ‘mix of higher education institutions’, the role higher education can play in promoting ‘sustainable economic growth’, and higher education funding. The group decided to focus their analysis on England, recognising that other parts of the United Kingdom had gone rather different ways.
The commission has now issued its report (A Critical Path). Covering 156 pages, the document sets out a significant number of recommendations on a variety of issues. The members of the group have attempted to set these within the context of five overarching principles: (a) higher education institutions must be disinterested producers of knowledge; (b) higher education institutions must nurture sceptical and informed citizens; (c) higher education institutions must promote the public good; (d) higher education institutions must expand opportunity: and (e) higher education institutions must further national economic renewal. Apart perhaps from some argument as to what the last of these principles might mean, all of these would probably be regarded by most members of the higher education community as self-evidently correct; they don’t rattle any cages or suggest any surprising departures. In other words, they don’t particularly serve as challenging questions for society or for the academy.
This in turn may deprive what is actually an interesting report of public awareness or excitement. Public reaction has been low key, even amongst higher education followers; there was for example hardly any Twitter discussion. Without perhaps much of a strategic steer, media interest zoomed in on just one (and somewhat peripheral) recommendation, the possible re-establishment of polytechnics in England.
So what are the real themes of the report? It is not easy to distil these from the large and varied number of recommendations, but some elements that do stand out are the commission’s concern to ensure that higher education participation is maintained and, over time, increased; that vocational education provision is developed within the system; that research and development continues to be funded on an ambitious scale; that access for the disadvantaged is promoted; that technology-enabled learning is grown; and that funding keeps the system in a sustainable state. None of these are bad or undesirable recommendations, but perhaps too many of them skirt around territory that could be described as obvious or not unexpected. They probably will not change general perceptions or expectations, and so may not influence strategic thinking unduly.
Most observers of higher education expect the coming era to be one of disruptive and challenging change. We know that technology will challenge pedagogical and organisational assumptions. We know that learners will lead different lives from those that my generation experienced. We know that old funding models will struggle to satisfy resourcing needs. We know that external stakeholders will want to harness the academy’s intellectual property in new ways. We know that tolerance for educational exclusion will diminish.
But we don’t know whether these trends and influences will overhaul and change a still coherent higher education system, or whether they will produce far more varied institutions, or what what any of these will look like. Higher education planning has already, I think, factored in most of the points made by the IPPR Commission; the current uncertainty is driven by opportunities, risks and challenges going somewhat beyond these.
Every contribution to the higher education debate is valuable, and this report is no exception. But it probably will not change the nature or tone of the debate.