Finding value in higher education

Today the British government launched a new review of English higher education, the aim being ‘to ensure a joined-up system that works for everyone’. This review has been heavily trailed for some time, and appears to be based on a sense of uneasiness with the existing framework. One particular angle was given expression by the Prime Minister in her speech announcing the review: she suggested that higher education was influenced by ‘outdated attitudes’, and that in particular there was too much much of a tendency to maintain a gulf between higher and further education.

The terms of reference of the review set out further concerns with the existing system:

‘… The system has encouraged growth in three-year degrees for 18 year-olds, but does not offer a comprehensive range of high quality alternative routes for the many young people who pursue a technical or vocational path at this age. The majority of universities charge the maximum possible fees for at least some of their courses and three-year courses remain the norm. Average levels of graduate debt have increased, but this has not always led to higher wage returns for all graduates. And the system does not comprehensively deliver the advanced technical skills that our economy needs.’

In the meantime, the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds MP, in a television interview on Sunday suggested that a problem with the current system in England was its pricing uniformity: as the BBC reported, he suggested that tuition fees should reflect each degree’s value to society:

‘What we need to look at is the different aspects of pricing – the cost that it is to put on the course, the value that it is to the student and also the value to our society as a whole and to our economy for the future.’

This again raises a number of questions about the value of higher education, and how that should relate to is cost. This is a complex issue in a system that bases university funding on tuition fees paid by students, but in a tightly regulated framework. Higher education in England is not a market (which few in the UK would want it to be), in the sense that universities cannot base their fees on supply and demand. But if not a market, then what? It is not offered as a social service, either. Indeed, it is much easier to say what it is not than to suggest what, in public policy terms, it actually is.

So the problem with the expectations that this new review may raise is that it is unclear what political perspective the UK government wants to adopt to inform its higher education strategy. Some of what we know is laudable: the drive for more participation by disadvantaged groups, for example. But it is hard to see an overall philosophical direction in the government’s pronouncements and actions.

In fairness, many (and not just the UK government) struggle to articulate and pursue a clear higher education policy. Is it all about protecting and resourcing a public good? Is it about recognising the benefits to the individual of a degree and extracting a contribution from that individual? Is it about meeting society’s skills needs? Back in 1963 the Robbins report set out a clear vision of turning what had been a benefit for the elite into a national resource. The sheer success of that vision eventually made its continued development difficult, because of the enormous cost involved. It will be interesting to see whether this new review, chaired by City equities broker Philip Augar, is able to make a significant contribution to finding a new vision that is based on a coherent outlook and is capable of being implemented successfully.

Frankly, that is quite a challenge.

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One Comment on “Finding value in higher education”

  1. paul martin Says:

    David Willetts, ex Uni Minister for England said on the Daily Politics TV show yesterday that there was a market in HigherEd: “some universities are expanding others are not”. One of the benefits of the unilateral setting of fees to the highest figure has been that it has been easier, for students to decide which to attend. The proposed review will improve the market aspect by introducing variable fees which will help those institutions who will be affected by overseas numbers reduction as a result of Brexit.

    The problem for commentators and insiders alike as highlighted by the Royal Soc Edin latest report on Scottish schools ( https://www.rse.org.uk/advice-papers/empowering-schools/ ) is lack of data. This is understandable at the personal end of the spectrum where, in such as Health, people are concerned about their circumstances being broadcast. However as certain FE College brochures show there is a wealth of information collected. Is its analysis too difficult or is the system unwilling to be open ?


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