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The huge expansion in the university sector is welcome but a downside is that it has not yet led to sufficient differentiation among universities. More relevant to this debate, there is still too sharp a demarcation between universities and other post-18 education. We have become trapped in the mindset that everyone who can get into university should go to one, even though many might do better with some alternative. I would go further and say that there is a fast-diminishing fraction for whom the traditional specialised degree is optimal. That is why some of our brightest young people are being enticed to American universities where disciplinary “stovepipes” are more permeable. More and more jobs require a degree—even an irrelevant degree—as an entry ticket, a fact that suppresses mobility by closing off career options to non-graduates to a greater extent than in the past.
However, despite expanding enrolments, many talented young people who could benefit from universities are still being denied the chance. That is happening to those who have been unlucky in their schooling and do not, by the age of 18, have the attainment level to qualify for the most competitive university courses. Even worse, they generally have no second chance. Options are also foreclosed for those who enter university but drop out before completing three years. They are described as “wastage” and it is hard for them to get back into the system, even if their circumstances change.
How much better it would be if all students could be given credits for what they have achieved, wherever they achieved it. They could then say, as Americans do, that they have had two years of college, and if these credits were recognised by other universities, they could be slotted again into the system. Transferable credits, although advocated for many years, have not caught on. Apart from at the Open University, it is all too rare for students to be admitted into the second or third year of a course on the basis of credits from other universities, HNCs or other FE qualifications that they have obtained earlier.
Our most selective universities should reserve some fraction of their places for those who have earned credits online or from another university, or come via some further education or part-time route. This would enhance fair access, and lead to a more diverse student body at Oxbridge and the rest of the Russell group.
More generally, universities will need to offer more options for students, ranging from part-time courses to intensive ones compressing a degree into two years. Online learning, in which the OU has a world lead, has a growing role. The so-called MOOCs may have been overhyped in the context of traditional undergraduate courses, but they will surely have a role in vocational courses for mature and motivated students. Other UK universities should support the OU by supplying content for such courses on its FutureLearn platform.
Finally, I wish to say a word about pre-18 education. We should keep pushing not only for technical education and apprenticeships, but also for a broader curriculum within the traditional sixth form. Tomlinson was, as we have heard, stymied by the last Labour Government for electoral reasons. Those with long enough memories will recall that the analogous Higginson proposals were killed off by Margaret Thatcher with the mantra about the gold standard of A-levels. The universities, by the way, deserve a lot of blame. They impede attempts to broaden the school curriculum by still favouring applicants who have had a narrow focus when selecting their competitive courses.
When the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee reported on STEM education, we deplored the fact that only 10% study any maths beyond the age of 16. We do not say that they should all do A-level maths, but an appropriate curriculum could be devised for them. There is clearly an urgent need for greater numeracy in almost all occupations and indeed for all citizens.
Of course there will be even more demand for lifelong learning. Books such as The Second Machine Age and Martin Wolf’s FT articles remind us of how the advance of machines and robotic techniques will replace workers in manufacturing. But the jobs most vulnerable to machines are not just blue-collar occupations. For instance, lawyers are vulnerable. It may prove far easier to automate much of their routine work, such as conveyancing, than the work of plumbers or skilled carpenters, teaching assistants and carers. They are the people whom we need keep training.
Be that as it may, the notoriously conservative education sector surely needs greater flexibility if it is to meet the changing pressures that society will place on it. That is why we should welcome this debate.