At both the major parties’ conferences this year, the future of higher education (HE) and who participates in it featured prominently as an issue. However, while each party has polices designed to catch the young person’s eye by making HE cheaper, neither is offering, as yet, a vision for HE in early 21st century Britain.
Central to this vision should be the contribution that HE can make to reducing inequality. HE leaders at the conferences were candid about the torrid time experiences within HE recently. One way to flip the perception of HE back to where it should be i.e. as a force for good for individuals and communities, is to unleash its ability to affect inequality. Some essential ingredients of such a vision are listed below:
Make HE a local leader on inequality
The contribution that HE makes to local areas is usually framed purely in economic terms. HE providers have a unique ability to be leaders of collaborative efforts aiding the development of local cross-sector initiatives to address educational inequality. A clear example of this is the University of Derby who are leading the government’s Social Mobility Opportunity Area for Derby.
A fair finance system
This means restoring maintenance grants for low-income students, and reducing fees to at least £3000 for full time undergraduate study. It also means looking at reforming the apprenticeship levy so that employers contribute to the development of staff at all levels, not only at the apprenticeship level.
Commit to ending differences in HE participation and success
Scotland has committed to ensuring by 2030 20 per cent of HE students are from the 20 per cent most deprived backgrounds. Similar long term targets are required for England but should include not just participation, but success during time spent in HE, and then progression into graduate employment for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Unleash the power of students
Hugely increase the numbers of students working as mentors with younger pupils and in community-based projects. Such work helps both young people attain higher standards at school, and students to develop skills which help in their studies and post-HE. This “service learning” could easily become a statutory part of many students’ courses, and by paying students to undertake this work it enables them to cut down on other low-paid part-time work, which minimises their ability to succeed in HE.
Change what HE means
The lack of flexibility in what the system offers restricts access. Any restructuring of the finance system should include incentivising HE providers to offer different forms of qualifications by experimenting with online and shorter “micro credentials”, targeted at those who do not want to take a three-year degree.
Enable academic staff to contribute
The combination of a high workload and endemic casualisation restricts the ability of HE staff to support the students who need it most. Access targets should only be set at levels consistent with improvements in the terms and conditions of staff, so that they can support students entering HE.
Take a holistic approach
Any review of HE will be of limited value unless it fits within broader reform of schools, colleges and skills. In particular, greater incentives for schools to work with HE are needed; at present there is no funding to do so and no sanction not to do so. Additionally, charging tuition fees to those over 24 intending to take Level 3 and 4 courses needs to end, to try and mitigate the continued decline in part-time and mature students entering HE.
Higher education transforms lives, in particular the lives of students who have had to overcome great barriers to get there. We need to give staff and students the funding and support to experience continued, and greater, transformation.