'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.