UK higher education: why the current numbers don’t add up (UK)

Other nations are expanding their higher education systems, says Libby Hackett of University Alliance. Why not the UK?

To stop the UK from slipping behind, we must change direction to ensure both our graduates and economy are equipped for the future, says Libby Hackett. Photograph: OJO Images / Rex Features/OJO Images/Rex Features

We talk a lot about the importance of UK students and graduates making well-informed decisions about their futures – but does education policy governing the future of our universities follow that same advice?

UK higher education cannot predict or plan for the future with any certainty. However, we do know that much is changing in the world around us: how we work, create, share and receive knowledge; how we deliver value; and how we connect to communities around the world. Our education system needs to adapt to this rapid pace of change, as individuals and the economy place new and changing demands on how and what higher education delivers.

This means seriously considering the evidence on the need for, and value of, graduates to ensure that decisions we make are well informed, not made in a short-term vacuum. It also raises inevitable questions about the affordability of our current funding system, which needs to be looked at. The consequences of not doing so could be detrimental to all our futures.

In 2010 the UK government stated that our universities are essential for building a strong and innovative economy and that they would take action to create more college and university places. David Willets has also acknowledged the OECD position that “the best way to grow tax revenues is for an economy to have more graduates”.

However, since 2011 our government has decided to cut more than 25,000 university places. Initial figures also show that since the changes to the funding system have been enacted we’ve seen a 40% drop in applications from mature and part-time students. These cuts are neither insignificant or inevitable.

The OECD argues that increasing the number of graduates and skilled workers will help to drive economic growth, and that those without skills will find themselves increasingly marginalised, with poor job prospects. Getting this right therefore has big implications.

A look at the evidence shows graduate vacancies continue to grow and jobs in graduate-dense occupations are an increasing proportion of the total workforce. In its survey of employers, Income Data Services found an 8% increase in the number of graduate roles being advertised. A recent Institute of Education skills and employment survey shows graduate jobs at a record high level while unskilled jobs at a record low, with 74% of those with degrees in graduate jobs, compared with 69% in 2006.

In part, this is a result of the labour market, with technology changing the work we do and how we do it. Jobs in many industries are developing rapidly. In the past 20 years whole sectors have transformed, disappeared and been created along with large numbers of high skilled jobs.

This trend is forecast to continue. As far back as 2008, NESTA told us that UK competitiveness hinges on our ability to create business-ready graduates with entrepreneurial skills, able to adapt to and take advantage of available opportunities.. This is why our universities focus on equipping students not only for immediate employment but for long-term employability.

Source: Guardian Higher Education Network

The value of graduates is reflected in the fact that innovative, high-growth companies have more than double the share of employees with degrees than non-innovative businesses. Graduates are also shown to have greater resilience within the jobs market than those with lower or no qualifications. The UK’s global competitors have taken this on board and are continuing to invest heavily in expanding higher education despite their own budget deficits. In contrast, England has had to reduce the number of places available at university to control expenditure.

The UK cannot rely on our historical strength alone. China now has many more students in higher education than the United States, and is currently pursuing its ‘talent strategy’, with a target of increasing the numbers of graduates entering the labour market by an additional 10 million per year in the next seven years. A senior policy maker in New Delhi described further expansion of higher education in India as “a gift to the world”. These nations have recognised that advances in technology are changing the way we work and are taking steps to ensure they are in a position to excel.

Any cuts to student numbers, and a system that is unable to grow student numbers, should be of great concern to the UK. That concern is for economic growth; for having enough engineers, computer scientists, designers and architects to meet and drive business and industry needs; for combatting unemployment in a labour market with growing numbers of graduate level jobs; and for the futures of those who are qualified for and want to go to university but are turned away.

We need to take a major look at how our higher education system is funded. Forcing postgraduates into the highly expensive system for undergraduates is unaffordable. Making minor adjustments to the graduate repayment system or the regulatory system are also just sticking plasters that will not address the underlying problem – that we are trying to operate a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

To put it starkly, we need more radical reform or we risk an expensive single system, designed primarily around young undergraduates, constraining our ability to meet the diverse needs of a more uncertain future. University Alliance is working with vice-chancellors, economists and sector experts to develop proposals for creating a dual or multiple funding system approach.

The UK is not only slipping behind, but if we continue down this route, we’ll be running in the wrong direction. We must change course to ensure both our graduates and economy are equipped for the future. In the short-term there must be no further cuts in the number of students able to go university. In the longer-term, we need ways of funding higher education that will enable student numbers to increase again.

Libby Hackett is chief executive of University Alliance – follow it on Twitter @UniAlliance

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 Posted by
Libby Hackett
Monday 10 June 2013 11.54 BST Guardian Professional
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