Making our higher education system accessible to all


By John Widdowson -

The debate around the future shape of higher education in England has often seemed to focus solely on the impact of those changes in student funding on full-time students moving directly from school to higher level study. Despite the fundamental shift in funding from direct state support towards a system made up almost entirely of student loans, data from the University and Colleges Application Service (UCAS) shows that applications for full-time courses from this group of students appears to have suffered least from fears of debt aversion. Thus, for the majority of young people, entry into higher education still remains a realistic and desirable option on leaving school, a view perhaps strengthened by the current lack of appropriate employment opportunities.

The picture for mature students seems to be less encouraging as students assess the relative benefits and life-changing potential of higher level education against the impact of long-term debt and the uncertainty of post-graduation employment. In this instance, current UCAS data suggests a fall of over 30% in the numbers of mature applicants against 2011 figures. The changes in funding for part-time students planned for 2013 introduce another element of uncertainty.

As the prospect for legislation to set the parameters for the new system in England diminishes, the promised revolution in higher education may not be as radical as first appeared.

Mature students form an essential element in our higher education student body. They bring a wealth of life experiences and refreshingly different perspectives which add to the educational experience of all students. Part-time students (many of whom would also of course see themselves as mature learners) bring their experience of the real world of work, complementing and often contrasting with the more academic aspects of study. They bring with them a different impetus – the realisation that people need jobs, skills and qualifications in order to obtain security, status and lifestyle.

The potential reduction of both of these types of student can only diminish our higher education institutions and the experiences they offer to all students. If institutions wish to maintain this diverse student body and play their full part in securing fairer and better access for this ‘at risk’ group, there are a number of measures which could be taken.

To begin with, curriculum delivery models and course structures could be made truly flexible. Arriving at precise, all-purpose definitions of ‘full-’ and ‘part-time’ study has proved elusive. Rather than pursue this seemingly impossible task, the opportunity should be taken to make the curriculum open to all, irrespective of their mode of study. Universities and colleges have the opportunity to make the artificial boundary between full and part-time study much more permeable, encouraging students to study together and share their varied experiences and backgrounds. A robust credit accumulation and transfer system (CATS) which allows students to move freely between institutions according to the changing demands of their working and personal lives must become a key feature of this new system. Modular course design with bankable credits will encourage more students to study at a time which suits them.
This will allow them to plan their studies to deal not only with its cost implications but also the other more intractable issues of balancing work, family and social life with study. A responsive CAT system also sustains the concept of self-development through hard work and application across successive generations.

‘Lifelong learning’ has been a much overused concept, though one with much untapped potential. The new flexibilities now made available within the English higher education system can make this more of a reality. Why should the ‘normal’ experience of higher education be measured against a traditional model of three years full-time study after leaving school at eighteen? The new landscape gives institutions the ability to open up the curriculum, encouraging students to learn when and how it suits them, not solely through historical patterns determined by institutions. The same arguments may be applied to the ‘gold standard’ of the three year Honours degree. More flexible models will not only encourage more students to participate but may also encourage more two-year intensive courses as well as accommodating those who wish to study over a longer period of, say, up to five years. Students planning to use their higher education qualification to further their careers may also balance the work-related nature of a two year foundation degree against the more academic content of the traditional Honours degree.

The same issues arise when considering degree-level equivalent qualifications. Given that students themselves will pay the full price for their higher education, a philosophy of lifelong learning must surely support individuals in their choice of what is best for them and their career development. In a rapidly changing economy, progression must not just be seen as vertical (i.e. to a higher post-graduate level) but also lateral as individuals make choices (and investments) in the skills which will sustain them in employment at the same or equivalent level. This in turn will help to foster a culture of lifelong higher learning: higher level study will be seen less as a once in a lifetime experience and more as a personal resource which needs to be constantly renewed.

Breaking down the barriers between the workplace and higher education presents a further challenge. Many very able young people make the choice at sixteen to follow a vocational pathway via an apprenticeship. Progression to higher education from apprenticeships has been low despite the demand for higher level applied skills from employers. A more open curriculum offer at higher level would encourage apprentices to build on their qualifications and progress to higher levels. Coupled with a credible approach to accrediting skills and knowledge acquired in the workplace, this could play a crucial role in broadening access to a neglected group of learners. Of course, some traditional views of the purpose of higher level study must be challenged if this is to become a reality. Those designing higher qualifications must learn to speak the same language as the employers they work with and reflect more directly the real life demands of the work place. Employer involvement in curriculum design and delivery, which in some institutions is often little more than rhetoric, would need to become more of a day-to-day reality.

Finally, institutions themselves must learn to work better together as part of an integrated regional, national and even international higher education system. Credit accumulation and transfer will only work if the higher education system makes a real commitment to collaborative working in areas which have hitherto been carefully guarded. Social mobility is linked to geographical mobility as students move between employers and locations to pursue their careers. Artificial barriers between institutions, perhaps based on an absolutist view of institutional autonomy, can impede this and must be challenged and removed so that students can move as seamlessly as possible between a variety of providers at the time, place and method which suits them best.

The revolution in higher education may be taking longer to appear than at first thought. However, much can be done within the new English system to ensure that the emerging landscape is as inclusive as possible.

John Widdowson CBE is Principal and Chief Executive of New College Durham and is Chair of the Mixed Economy Group of Colleges.

New College Durham is a Mixed Economy College combining both further and higher education in the same institution. The College is one of only two in England with the power to award Foundation degrees.

 

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