Time for a higher education revolution

An edited version of this blog first appeared on the Higher Education Academy’s website.

The world looked very different in 1991. Tim Berners-Lee made the World Wide Web available to the public for the first time. The first digital mobile phone networks launched in Europe. The Soviet Union collapsed after 70 years. And Bryan Adams had the number one record for 15 weeks. (There were these things called records.)

1991 was also when we last saw a White Paper which promised such far-reaching changes to the architecture of Higher Education. Then, as now, much of the change was intended to liberate a new generation of institutions. Already loosened from local authority control, Polytechnics across the country seized the independence offered to them through becoming new Universities.

In the last 25 years, the forces of technology and globalisation have carved a very different economic landscape. But we are on the cusp of even more radical shifts as the pace of technological change is faster than ever. The Edge Foundation calls this the Digital Revolution in its excellent new pamphlet of the same name.

Education must respond to this revolution, but is lagging behind. Students today will have a working lifetime which is longer, more varied, and less predictable. It will span advancements that see entire sections of the workforce replaced by automation. Technology will create new jobs, but it will make just as many redundant.

It is the responsibility of our sector to prepare today’s students for jobs which do not yet exist. Most of this year’s graduates will never know the concept of a job for life. They may change career paths three or four times. More will be self employed or join the gig economy. The office may be an unfamiliar environment.

The sector is not moving fast enough to adjust to this new reality. Most universities are still in love with the idea of a single degree course, a single discipline that defines your career – this made sense when careers lasted until retirement, but those days are over. A graduate career path cannot be taken for granted – nor indeed can the ‘graduate premium’, as the recent, sobering IFS research made plain. We need to match innovations in the economy with innovations of our own, or we will inevitably fall behind, and HE’s perceived value will slip.

The White Paper reforms will set us on the right track. The Teaching Excellence Framework heralds a long overdue rebalancing of priorities away from research towards the experience and outcomes of students. It will shine a light on the characteristics of provision that matter most to students, allowing them to make meaningful comparisons between providers.

What matters will vary between students, as they are individuals with an individual future in mind: some will set most store on the salary expectations of graduates from their course; others will be reassured that graduates of a creative arts programme are active in their chosen vocation, as a professional artist or musician, and not stuck in middle management.

The act of teaching itself is still the most essential piece in this picture of excellence. Inspiring instruction by great communicators who are passionate about their subject is still the best way to instill a thirst of learning and a drive to succeed amongst students. This is no different in the independent sector. But students are attracted to independent providers for a very different style of instruction and calibre of teacher. Industry experience is prized more highly than research profile. An ability to draw in real-world applications and case studies is more important than facility with the academic literature.

The rise of this industry-led model will be supercharged by reforms which encourage new providers to enter the sector. Many independent providers locate their provision within a specific industry, and a growing number are themselves the product of a particular business. Companies like Condé Nast, Sotheby’s and Pearson are using their intimate knowledge of their industry, and their experience of training their own staff, to design highly relevant and up-to-the-minute courses which give students just the right mixture of knowledge and skills to succeed professionally.

The industry perspective of these institutions is not window dressing; it is integrated into every aspect of the course. Students are immersed fully in these worlds to inspire and challenge them to aim higher. UCFB, the world’s first college of football business, teaches familiar subjects such as law, marketing and psychology through the lens of football and the sports industry. Sports provide the context and case studies for putting theory into practice, and this approach works to engage many sports enthusiasts who may not otherwise have seen a path for themselves through HE.

The White Paper and accompanying Bill will open the gates of the HE sector to more top companies and educational entrepreneurs to follow in these footsteps, and expand this approach to a broader range of subjects and industries. Those leading the Digital Revolution are especially well placed to develop a vision of higher education which prepares today’s students for the technological and economic challenges of tomorrow.

It must not be a free-for-all. The comprehensive new regulatory framework will provide more robust and consistent scrutiny and assurance of registered providers than the piecemeal and patchy regulation which exists now. The quality bar must be set as high as ever, but encourage a reimagining of what is possible in higher education, not become a straitjacket of the traditional.

The world has changed a lot in 25 years, but the next 25 may prove more revolutionary still. We must respond with a Higher Education Revolution of our own.

  • On 20th May 2016
Tags: HE Bill, HE reform, Industry, Technology