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Securing the future of higher education

10 Jun 2013

A year after IPPR set up the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, its final report A critical path: Securing the future of higher education in England was launched on 10th June 2013. The report, which summarises the findings and recommendations from the Commission, was welcomed by Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna at its launch.

Among its key recommendations are for a £1000 student premium for universities for every recruit that comes from a disadvantaged background, as well as a call to bring back polytechnics, to strengthen the provision of vocational further education.

Nigel Thrift, chairman of the commission and vice-chancellor of Warwick University spoke at the event alongside Chuka Umunna and John Sexton, president of New York University. Having just arrived from NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, John Sexton stressed the increasingly international nature of higher education.

The event also heard from the report's commissioners Dame Jackie Fisher, chief executive of the Newcastle College Group, Steve Smith the vice-chancellor of Exeter University, and Professor Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University.

Chuka Umunna and HE commissioners speak at the report launch

Rick Muir on the future of higher education

An avalanche is coming: the new HE debate

13 Mar 2013

Michael Barber, one of the authors of An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution, outlines his view of the massive challenges confronting traditional universities and old school higher education institutions from globalisation, technology, the labour market and mobile students.

Steve Smith, vice chancellor of Exeter University, responds, focusing on the value of the 'lived experience' for on-campus students and the obligation on universities to work with the tide of global changes.

Sir Steve Smith responds to Michael Barber's 'An avalanche is coming'

Interview with Michael Barber on the future of universities

Public debate and learning trip, Newcastle

31 Jan 2013

On 6 December 2012, at IPPR North’s office in Newcastle, the commission hosted a public debate on the future of higher education. Over 50 members of the public battled through the snow to hear speeches from Professor Les Ebdon, director of OFFA; Roxanne Stockwell, president of higher education awards at Pearson College; Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland; and Professor Chris Brink, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University.

In his talk, Professor Ebdon argued that England faces a specific problem with ensuring access to the most selective universities. He found the fall in the numbers of mature and part-time students particularly worrying, and argued it was a sign that the new funding system had not been communicated well to adults. He welcomed the recommendations put forward in the Milburn review and stated that, as director of OFFA, he would put more emphasis on improving outreach activities.

Roxanne Stockwell, who represented the private HE provider Pearson College, spoke about the important role that for-profit institutions could play in expanding the HE sector and widening participation. In her view, more competition in the HE sector could make the sector both more diverse and more driven towards improvements. She argued that the price insensitivity of the current funding system made it very difficult to drive down costs and get more competition in the sector.

Robin Parker was critical of the potential of marketising higher education, and argued that a real market in higher education is impossible, since students cannot get their money back if they are unhappy with their degree. He drew attention to the precarious financial situation that many young people find themselves in today, and argued that we need more attention to the amount of money that students have ‘in their pockets’ while in education.

Professor Brink spoke about how to retain the idea of HE as a public good, when high fees and market forces are premised on the idea of HE being a private benefit. He was concerned that students are increasingly viewed as consumers rather than learners, and that little attention is paid to the public role of universities. He argued that universities don’t just need to be good at doing things like research and teaching, but they also need to be good for their local areas.  

Members of the audience raised a number of other issues, including whether universities should be allowed to expand, and how the new UKBA measures on international students will affect the sector.



Earlier in the day, the commission had travelled to Newcastle to learn about higher education provision within a further education setting, and to meet with leaders from colleges and universities in the region. The commission spent most of the day at Newcastle College, which is one of the biggest providers of HE in an FE setting.

The day began with a presentation by the senior management team on the college’s approach to providing FE. The team described the college’s commitment to engaging with employers, both in order to tailor their provision to their needs and in order to provide good employment prospects for their students. They argued that their key strength lies in their ability to design programmes that are relevant to the workplace, and they can do so much more quickly and efficiently than other institutions. They also described new innovations that they are involved in developing, such as e-learning and online monitoring of staff and students.

The commissioners then met with HE students at the college, who gave us insight to the student experience of doing HE in an FE setting. Although they were worried about the recent hike in fees and increasing debts, they expressed a high level of satisfaction with their learning experience and felt that their degree prepared them well for the job market, both because they had established valuable contact with employers and because of the content of their course. The commissioners also met with a group of teaching staff, who explained the college's emphasis on individualised learning. They also described how they engage with employers to shape and inform the content of their curricula, for example through employer forums.

Finally, the commissioners had a meeting with senior management staff from different colleges and universities in the North East. These HE leaders told the commission about difficulties they have had recruiting part-time students following the introduction of the fees, the challenges of improving access and participation when so many students are debt-averse, and the dangers involved in the marketisation of the HE system. They expressed a desire for more regional collaboration and a more stable policy environment.

'Reconciling competing expectations'

13 Dec 2012

Although universities today have to reconcile a range of competing demands from society, the economy and the government, these challenges can be overcome, argues Professor Sir Rick Trainor, principal and president of King’s College London and member of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

On 22 November 2012, Professor Trainor delivered a seminar paper at King’s College London on the key demands facing universities. The seminar was the fourth in a series designed to run alongside the IPPR Commission on the Future of Higher Education, of which Professor Trainor is a member. The seminars are co-hosted by IPPR, King’s Policy Institute and the Department of History at King’s College London.

Professor Trainor’s talk was given in personal capacity and does not necessarily represent the views of either King’s College London or the Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

'Reconciling competing expectations of higher education’

Professor Sir Rick Trainor has been principal and professor of social history at King’s College London since 2004, with the additional title of president since 2009. He is a past president of Universities UK, the major representative body for the higher education sector, and in 2010 he was awarded a knighthood for services to higher education. Professor Trainor is also a member of the IPPR Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

Professor Trainor commenced his talk by reflecting on the scale of the changes that the English higher education world has experienced since he arrived as principal at King’s in 2004-2005. Some of these changes – such as the further growth of student numbers (especially from overseas), the increased demand for widening participation, and the rise in student fees – were to some extent foreseen. Other factors – such as the financial crisis and global economic downturn were not.

In his seminar, Professor Trainor’s central message was that despite the fact that the challenges he analysed nearly eight years ago have become more sharply defined for British universities, these challenges can be overcome.

Professor Trainor concentrated on four areas where there have been particularly important changes in the last few years, with implications for major ongoing tensions regarding the purpose of universities as embodied in rival expectations of them: (1) the rise in student expectations; (2) an increasingly polarised debate about higher education research and research funding, and the relationship between research and teaching; (3) the impact on universities of public spending cuts; and (4) changes in university autonomy, especially with regard to widening participation.

The rise in student expectations

Professor Trainor noted that students’ expectations of what they should get from higher education are growing due to deep-seated cultural changes combined with the significantly increased personal financial investment most UK undergraduates have to make to achieve a degree. The National Student Survey (NSS) has acquired increased leverage on UK university league tables and the recent introduction of the Key Information Set (KIS) means that universities have to publish a wide range of standardised information for all their undergraduate programmes. The KIS includes data on future employment prospects and salary, which are major concerns for students in choosing what and where to study. This is set against a worrying backdrop of almost one in ten graduates being unemployed six months after graduating, as they enter one of the worst jobs market young people in the UK have seen in a generation.

Though these are not catastrophic figures, Professor Trainor argued that they demand attention and that universities need to continue to demonstrate how their courses, and their co-curricular activities, such as employability modules, prepare students for the ‘life of jobs’ which has now replaced the concept of ‘jobs for life’.

The essential relationship between research and teaching

Professor Trainor noted students’ increasing focus on the quality of the teaching, pastoral care and more general experience that they received and reaffirmed the importance of balancing these needs with the needs of research, which in turn is vital to research-led teaching.

He outlined a concern shared by many colleagues in the humanities and social sciences that the government’s focus was skewed toward more ‘utilitarian’ STEM subjects. He emphasized the value of all disciplines, both for the skills of graduates and the importance of research.

Whatever their discipline, UK academics face ever tougher competing demands on their time and attention between student-facing activities and their research. Professor Trainor felt that this dilemma had worsened since the government had decided to restrict research funding to the top two grades in the research assessment.

On the question of how to reconcile these tensions, Professor Trainor emphasized that he was not arguing for top-down bureaucratic regulation of the research, or the teaching, of academics. Instead he believed that fairness both to students and to individual academics demanded that the allocation of teaching, and institutional expectations of the research output of academics, be agreed and respected on both sides.

In addition, he outlined how King’s, like many other universities, had made significant changes in recent years to its promotion procedures, in order to recognise teaching excellence.

The impact of funding cuts

Professor Trainor moved on to the unforeseen impact of the financial crisis, the dramatic economic downturn which followed and the consequent shift from a period of expansionist public spending to one of restraint and cutbacks. English universities will have lost, over three to five years, approximately 80 per cent of their previous government funding for teaching, and roughly the same proportion of capital funding. Only through charging higher fees, often at £9,000 per year, can universities have a realistic chance of recouping these huge losses in public funding, he reported.

There are concerns, such as those voiced by the Higher Education Policy Institute, about the viability and sustainability of the new loan system. Professor Trainor warned that even if these financial perils were avoided, UK universities would have had no help from the new fee system in keeping up with their competitors in other countries, such as China, in terms of their investment in their universities.

In relation to attracting international students to the UK, British universities face increasing competition, he added, and are not helped by government changes to the visa system at a time when one of the UK’s major competitors, Australia, has recently announced a sweeping liberalisation of its student visa rules. Professor Trainor reinforced his view that it is crucial for the UK to continue to build its brand as a reliable and exciting place to study, offering a rich life experience and enhanced career prospects.

Autonomy of universities

Professor Trainor recognised that tensions are inevitable in a university system which draws significant income from the government, but he underlined the importance of retaining university autonomy. Concerned that the current situation in which government cash flowing directly into universities is falling, he urged avoiding the fate of many American state universities which have experienced increasing regulation even as public finance has decreased.

Professor Trainor moved on to another key issue relevant to autonomy – the social pattern of those admitted to university. While some progress has been made in widening participation in higher education, and access to selective universities, there are still considerable challenges. These have not been eased by the government’s 2011 white paper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’. Universities have been simultaneously encouraged to increase their proportion of ‘AAB’ students and to increase their intake of students from the sorts of schools and residential areas which tend to generate very few student grades at that level. Only by a major shift (which would be very controversial) away from awarding places to candidates with the best grades on national examinations can a major advance in ‘access’ be achieved in the short term.


Professor Trainor concluded that although it is more difficult to reconcile the conflicting expectations of UK universities now than in 2005, he believed that it is not impossible.

It is true that students are more demanding, the long-standing research/teaching dilemma is sharper, money is much tighter, pressures on traditional academic values in teaching and research are more marked, and the role of government in the running of universities is more formidable.

Yet, he remarked that UK universities can and must make more of the consensus that universities are crucial to the country’s future. To do so in ways which inhibit rather than encourage damage to the basic functions of universities requires that those in universities prize, and argue for, teaching and research both for their intrinsic value and for the social and cultural, as well as economic benefits, that they bring to the country.

Professor Trainor added that this argument needs to be made in a way that demonstrates the value, for students and society as well as academics, of all disciplines – in the humanities and social sciences as much as in STEM and clinical subjects.

Finally, he reminded the audience of some of the important things in UK universities which have improved during the last decade: UK universities are now much more extensively, and reciprocally, involved with other countries than they used to be and they have dramatically improved their fundraising performance. These and other positive changes are a reminder that, in confronting ever sharper dilemmas concerning the purposes and expectations of universities, the UK system has many advantages.

Learning trip to Sheffield

17 Oct 2012

On 4 October, the commission travelled to Sheffield to visit the city’s largest higher education institutions, Sheffield University and Sheffield Hallam University. The purpose of the trip was to hear about the issues and concerns facing staff, students and senior managers.

At Sheffield University, the commission was given a short presentation about the university and how it tries to balance its historical role as a civic university rooted in the local community alongside its newer role as a globally competitive institution. The commission also met with a group of students, a group of staff and the senior management at the university, all of whom gave the commission informative angles on issues ranging from civic engagement and the role of markets in higher education, to student number controls and postgraduate funding.

After this, the commission headed to Sheffield Hallam University, where it was welcomed by the university’s senior management team and heads of schools. The discussion focused on university-business engagement, access and widening participation, and how higher education institutions can collaborate.

The commission’s next learning trip will be to Newcastle Upon Tyne on 6 December, when we will be based at Newcastle College, one of the largest providers of HE in a further education setting.

Seminar review: The 'local public good'

09 Oct 2012

At the most recent IPPR–KCL seminar on higher education, on 5 September, Tim Wilson and Alix Green explored the ways in which universities can act as hubs for regional economic life and local culture.

The crux of Tim Wilson’s argument was that in order for higher education institutions (HEIs) to become key players in our economy, they need to play to their distinct local strengths and embrace institutional differentiation. Alix Green argued that HEIs must draw on stories as well as numbers when establishing their local institutional identity.

The seminar was the third in a series of seminars designed to run alongside the IPPR Commission on the Future of Higher Education. The seminars, which bring together academics, policy researchers, journalists and other people working in the field of higher education policy, are co-hosted by IPPR, King’s Policy Institute and the Department of History at King’s College London.

  • Seminar review written by Annika Olsen

Orienting the idea of the university towards local public good: ‘Stand out, link up and innovate’

Tim Wilson began by pointing out that it has now become undeniable that universities are at the core of economic prosperity. But it wasn’t always like this – it was only 50 to 60 years ago that visionaries, especially in North America, realised that innovation and economic growth is intrinsically tied with research and high skills. This paved the way for institutions like Caltech and MIT to become leaders in innovation and key players in the global economy. However, it is important to realise that these institutions are also locally situated and bring local benefits.

Bringing the focus back to the UK, Wilson argued that HEIs should play to their individual strengths and differentiate themselves rather than all try to do the same thing. Particularly those institutions that do not figure on the global league tables can have a lot more impact by working with specific sectors in their local area. He referred to several success stories of local university–business collaborations, such as Southampton Solent University’s collaboration with the local maritime industry; the collaboration between Coventry University, Warwick University and Jaguar Landrover; and the Bristol enterprise zone, which connects Bristol University and the University of the West of England with local businesses.

Wilson also referred to his own former institution to highlight the importance of strategic vision for local success. Under his leadership, the University of Hertfordshire purchased a closed, empty research centre which was converted into a facility to accommodate SMEs in the life sciences and health sectors. This so-called ‘BioPark’ now hosts over 20 companies and – due to its strategic location between Oxford, Cambridge and London – is a popular choice for growing companies that wish to relocate.

Wilson went on to argue that the benefits of differentiation not only apply when it comes to strategic collaboration between institutions and businesses, but also when it comes to the type of graduates that institutions supply. There is a strong case for universities to be strategic with their teaching and to offer specialised courses in locally sought-after areas of expertise. This not only helps the universities create partnerships with local businesses, it is also likely to heighten the profile and reputation of the institution in that specific field of expertise.

‘Stories count too’

At the heart of Alix Green’s talk was the idea that stories are as important as numbers when it comes to establishing the role of HEIs in their local environment. Just like stories need to be substantiated with quantitative evidence, statistical arguments need to be substantiated with stories.

In her view, universities can benefit hugely from having a better understanding of their local history and heritage. This not only helps them meet global challenges, it also opens up possibilities for global collaboration with other universities that have similar experiences and parallel histories.

Green argued that universities should embrace their local specificities, and that it should be different to study at different institutions. For instance, it is only natural that sustainability students study their local ecology and that business students collaborate with local SMEs. Green also argued that business departments should teach ‘questioning’ rather than just ‘knowledge’ in order to arm business professionals with the skill to acquire contextual knowledge.

Discussion: Differentiation versus status struggles

In the discussion afterwards, one seminar participant highlighted the lack of attention to the non-economic local benefits of HEIs. This participant pointed out that there are also cultural and social benefits. For instance, having a university education increases a person’s likelihood to vote, gain social capital, avoid crime, and be employed, and according to research in the US, universities are particularly beneficial to the locality in areas of deep-seated deprivation.

But most of the discussion afterwards surrounded the obstacles to embracing a more differentiated HE sector, especially since the sector is so hierarchical and wrought with status struggles.

In his comments, Tim Wilson made clear his belief that the HE sector needs a landscape model, in which universities find their own domain based on their individual strengths. In his view, not all HEIs should try to be a global player – instead, institutions need to be clear about what their reach and role actually is.

One participant asked, ‘What if universities don’t know their place and don’t want to accept their distinct domain in the landscape?’ This participant pointed out that in Europe the key predictor of future employment is what subject you did at university, but in the UK it is what university you went to. This shows that there isn’t equal appreciation of the roles that different types of universities play, which leads institutions to strive towards the same ideals rather than to pursue different missions.

Tim Wilson is former vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire. He was commissioned by the government to undertake the Wilson review of university-business collaboration, released earlier this year.

Alix Green is head of policy at the University of Hertfordshire and worked as principal adviser to the Wilson review.

Sir Michael Barber tells IPPR about his new book, Oceans of Innovation

Seminar review: The global auction for jobs

25 Jul 2012

The 'user pays' model of higher education introduced by the government is based on the expectation that higher education will led to better employment outcomes for individual graduates – but what if this is no longer the case?

On 10 July 2012, Professor Phillip Brown gave a thought-provoking presentation on the so-called 'global auction for jobs' and its implications for higher education at a seminar co-hosted by IPPR and King's College London.

'Higher education and the global auction for jobs: towards a new policy agenda'

Professor Phillip Brown, distinguished research professor at the school of social sciences, Cardiff University

According to the promises of the knowledge economy, the more people that participate in higher education, the better it is for them as individuals and for the economy and wider society. But in recent years, Phillip Brown and his colleagues have sought to shed a different light on this commonly held view.

Their book, The Global Auction: The Broken Promises of Education, Jobs, and Incomes, argues that the knowledge economy's promises of more rewarding jobs and better incomes for highly educated people have been disrupted by a range of global trends that impact on the way in which globalisation is altering the global stratification of highly skilled people.

Brown's presentation focused on the characteristics of each of these four core trends. The first trend that he described was the 'globalisation of high skills'. This refers to the fact that developing countries are catching up with, and increasingly also outperforming, developed countries in terms of educating their populations. China has now taken over the US as the country with most people enrolled in its higher education system, and 60 per cent of doctorates in the US and the UK are awarded to foreign rather than home students. Thus, countries in the west are no longer the only ones with highly-skilled populations, but are facing more and more competition from rising economies, especially in the east.

The second trend is the quality-cost revolution. This relates to the fact that companies today no longer need to choose between either taking a low-cost (outsourcing) strategy or a high-quality (expensive) strategy because they can now get both at the same time. The rise of higher education in developing countries means that companies are able to outsource high-skilled work in addition to low-skilled work, and that they no longer need to rely on expensive high-skilled expertise in the west. The implication here is that highly-skilled people in the UK are not just competing against similarly skilled people in the UK, Europe and America, but also against highly skilled people in developing countries that are willing to do the same work for much less.

The third trend that Brown described was the move 'from mechanical Taylorism to digital Taylorism'. There has been a standardisation of digitalisation across the business world with the consequence that traditional roles associated with 'knowledge work' have been transformed into roles needing ever-developing, menial 'working knowledge' that must adapt to the newest technological circumstances.

The fourth and final trend in the global auction thesis relates to the new 'war for talent'. The globalisation of high-skilled workers and the consequent decline in value of high-level skills, has destabilised the promises of the knowledge economy and higher education. A high level education no longer provides assurance of a good life and a good job because the growth in the availability of high skills means that only the most talented (and frequently the most privileged) workers get the interesting and rewarding knowledge jobs. It is no longer good enough to just have a qualification and a set of skills – young people today need to be among the best in order to be sure to succeed, and they are competing against people all around the world. A consequence of this is the increased importance attached to global university league tables: being 'good' is no longer good enough.

According to Brown, these trends have major implications for the career opportunities of young people. Today, everyone is in the global auction for jobs, whether they like it or not, and although higher education may bring an individual further ahead in the race, it is no longer an assurance of success. These trends force us to rethink the argument that an expansion of higher education is the best or only way to make our economy more competitive.

They also raise important questions about our national policy focus: Are we too hooked up on global league tables? Should we be mainly concerned with nourishing the 'best' talents that we have (the 'competitive challenge'), or should we focus on creating good job opportunities for everyone (the 'equity challenge')? Do we support more resources going to the best universities, as is being done with the freeing of number controls for universities admitting AAB+ students?

The discussion afterwards

After Phillip Brown's presentation, other seminar participants had the opportunity to ask questions and make contributions to the discussion.

One participant raised the question of how we can get away from the global university league table competition, in which all universities are competing for the same thing, to a place where more distinctiveness and diversity is encouraged in what universities try to do.

Another participant asked the speaker if a corollary of what he was saying was that people don't need a degree to do menial digital tasks. He also asked, ‘doesn't higher education still serve a function as a filtering option for employers to ensure a minimum level of attainment?’ The speaker responded that yes, higher education is a filtering device more than anything else. Employers will still look for graduates, and experience and maturity will still matter, but the problem is that the jobs won't live up to graduates' hopes. This is what worries him, especially with the increasing tuition fees, loans, and so on.

One participant commented that the global auction thesis seems to be implying that graduates will be dumped down, and that low skills will be dumped out altogether. This moved the discussion onto the question of whether it is still worthwhile to do a degree. One person noted that the graduate premium implies that there is still a value to doing a degree. This was rebutted by another participant, who argued that the graduate premium is not going to hold up for much longer: ‘There is a lot of inequality in earnings between graduates and non-graduates in their 20s, but after the mid-30s it flattens and it declines later on. This is actually very worrying when you compare it to the figures that the government is assuming on graduate earnings. It shows that human capital theory doesn't work any more.’

The discussion then moved onto other narratives on the effect of digitalisation on jobs. As one participant said: ‘You describe it as leading to menial tasks and standardisation, but another view is that it leads to things becoming more personable and more creative.’ The speaker responded that that may be true for some jobs and some technologies, but that for the majority of people, the reality will be different. Most people working on apps, for instance, have very menial and low-paid jobs.

Some of the seminar participants asked where the optimism was in all of this, since the 'global auction of jobs' seems to provide no hope for the future. The speaker then explained that a new book that he and his colleagues were working on was going to be a bit more upbeat and forward-looking. Asked for some good examples of programmes that address the problems with the global auction, the speaker drew attention to liberal arts education initiatives since they challenge the norms of the knowledge economy by seeking to develop people into creative, thinking individuals in addition to equipping them with skills. He also emphasised that the authors of the global auction are not against higher education per se. They very much agree with the civic and cultural purposes of higher education – their argument rather is that the human capital theory of higher education no longer applies.

According to the speaker, current policy directions on higher education in the UK, such as allowing universities attracting AAB+ students to expand, are leading to a greater concentration of resources and a more rigid definition of elites. By defining the elite and making the higher education system more hierarchical, we are also defining those who are not the elite and legitimising inequality in society. He argued further that one problem with the UK is that we have failed to create a good route between vocational education and higher education, and we have lost a sense of dignity for any work that's not a graduate job. We need a radical new theory of human capital – one that begins with a notion of recognising labour.

Seminar review: What are universities for?

16 Jul 2012

As part of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, IPPR is co-hosting a year-long series of seminars with King’s Policy Institute and the Department of History at King’s College London. The first seminar took place on 12 June 2012. Dr Jon Wilson gave a talk titled ‘Real World Thinking: what are universities for?’, which was followed by a stimulating discussion among the seminar participants.

‘Real world thinking: what are universities for?’

Dr Jon Wilson, senior lecturer in history at King’s College London

Dr Wilson argued that there is an absence of a compelling narrative about what universities are for – a narrative that is shared by everyone: students, teachers, the public, politicians.

He touched on the clash between management and academia when it comes to governing universities and ensuring quality. Whereas managements tend to see things through a New Public Management (NPM) framework, communities of scholars have their own purposes and their own understanding of what they are doing. According to Dr Wilson, the problem with NPM is that it encourages people to work alone rather than together. What we need to maintain standards is a combination of elitism and democracy. We cannot rely on NPM measures to ensure quality.

Dr Wilson emphasised that universities are connected with the real world – they exist to make reality simpler to understand and people are driven to go to universities by real world concerns. We need to think more deeply about people and their relations to higher education.

The idea of universities purely as providers of transferable skills was challenged – universities must be seen as vocational in its broadest sense. Choosing a subject at university is increasingly equal to choosing a path in life. The practical implications of this are great, and we need to think about if we need more planning and coordination of university places by subject.

At the same time, he argued, an economistic perspective has come to dominate over other ways of interpreting the world and the way universities are run. The rising fees, the difficult job market, and the increasing polarisation of the sector raises the question of whether university is worth going to for those that cannot get into a top institution. We also need to ask whether price competition works in higher education, or if we should think about setting variable fees for different subjects.

Jon Wilson’s overarching arguments were that universities need to take more responsibility for what happens to students in their wider life, both before and after university. They also need to become more like member institutions that count students, academics, alumni, funders and local residents among their members. Finally, universities must engage with the real world, but they also have a civic role to play in terms of connecting with their local town or city.

Download the full text of Dr Jon Wilson’s talk.

Some points from the discussion afterwards

The university as a place to play, explore, have fun, be critical

  • What defines universities is the key question. The civic role of universities should get more attention. The university is a meeting place for different perspectives – a marketplace of ideas.
  • There is a romantic view of universities as a place where normal roles are suspended. The view of universities as a place to play, explore, have fun, be critical. How do you enshrine or align that with public policy? For the last year, the governance of universities has been dominated by bureaucracy, whereas diversity and status have been put in the background. Can you have elements of diversity (i.e. people experimenting, exploring, innovating) while still having the bureaucracy? Can we move to a new era where we have defined the dominant paradigm?

To regulate or not?

  • If we reject New Public Management, what else can guarantee that higher education meets public purposes? NPM initiatives were established to ensure that taxpayer money was well-spent. If that approach isn’t good anymore, then what approach is? What is more in the interest of the state: that universities are free to do their own thing or that they are regulated to achieve certain benchmarks?
  • The impact assessment is actually not as unreasonable as some people make it out to be. It only requires one staff in the department to show impact.
  • The fact that we spend public money on research means that there is a national interest in what comes out of it. We need to be more directed about what we want out of it and we need to be more directed about where it is done (regional balance), but we need to do this through other measures than impact evaluation. However, there is a public interest in how research is done, and we need to be clear about that.

We need a more mature relationship between universities and the state

  • There are other ways of doing things than through managerialism. Managerialism is what happens when you don’t know what the problem is.
  • There’s a lot of process compliance in NPM that we can get rid off and, by doing so, achieve even better impact. We need a more mature relationship between universities and the state.
  • Getting beyond NPM is going to be partly about trusting institutions in what they’re doing and not killing off energy and involvement.
  • If you look at Oxbridge, they don’t need new public management. Academics there are more productive even though they don’t have the same NPM scrutiny.

Universities and wider society

  • When we are talking about what universities are for, it is important to realise that universities do not operate in a void, but operate with a range of policies and are affected by student choice, the economy, etc.
  • What is the full diversity of higher education? We need to get rid of the separation of vocation from theory and try to think about the relationship between thought and practice.

On access

  • What is good about the UK university system compared to many other countries, and what we need to defend, is the fact that students can’t buy their way in. You can’t buy a university place here. That makes it very different from other public services and distinguishes elite UK universities from the US Ivy League.
  • The AAB policy is likely to lead to students from independent schools taking up most of the places if the top universities choose to expand. Well-informed students understand the market and how to get into specific universities, for instance by choosing second choice subjects that are easier to get good grades in. It is very important to take into account what narrative we give of elite universities.

On markets and competition

  • We want competition and collaboration. The white paper is so explicit about the value of competition in the higher education sector, but it’s not even implicit about the value of collaboration.
  • Mutually enforcing markets in HE can’t work because students can’t move between universities. There is also a contradiction between the generous loan system and the desire to have price competition and differentiation – they are incompatible.
  • It also matters to think about what kind of markets we’re talking about, what kind of incentives and criteria for quality measures there are in place. A lot of what people choose their university on basis of is status, so when we’re talking about a market in higher education, we need to stop thinking about it as a neoliberal market.

Chuka Umunna on higher ambitions

12 Jun 2012

Speaking to a packed room at IPPR's London offices, shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna outlined Labour's plans for reforming the British economy and the crucial role of universities and other higher and further education institutions in fulfilling those plans. Referring back to Ed Miliband's plans for a more responsible capitalism, Umunna outlined three aspects of higher education's roll in economic growth:

Chuka Umunna speaks to IPPR on the role of higher education in our economic future

Announcing a series of exploratory seminars

31 May 2012

As part of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, IPPR will be co-hosting a year-long series of seminars with King’s Policy Institute and the Department of History at King’s College London. The seminars will bring together politicians, policymakers, academics and university leaders to discuss key issues in higher education.

The purpose of the seminars is to address these issues from new perspectives and to feed fresh ideas into the work of the commission. Thus, the seminars will present arguments from a range of different views rather than offering a single perspective. Planned speakers include Jon Wilson, Rick Trainor, Hugh Lauder, Alix Green, Alison Wolf and Chris Winch.

The seminars will run from June 2012 until March 2013, when the commission will report. Papers from the seminars and interviews with speakers will be published here.

The challenges facing UK higher education

20 Mar 2012

Following the first meeting of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education we spoke to the commissioners about what they felt were the biggest challenges facing UK higher education.

The comissioners felt that the biggest challenges facing UK higher education were the destabilisation of all funding, competition for the best students and teachers, making higher education affordable for everyone and funding for post graduate courses.

The Commission on the Future of Higher Education