The urgent need for a reappraisal of the UK’s university system
Some headlines, like swallows and mosquitoes, come round every summer. One of them, increasingly prominent, highlights the thousands of young people who haven’t and won’t get a university place.
As the number of such places grows, so too do the numbers of disappointed applicants. Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of the university admissions service UCAS, estimated in August this year that between 150,000 and 190,000 people with applications in the UCAS system would ‘miss out on’-that is, not get -a place. Last year it was 160,000; the year before, around 130,000.
These are frightening figures. However, before we start visualising hundreds of thousands of British 18-year olds, rejected by higher education and adrift in our current job market, they do need some contextualising. There are only about 800,000 18 year olds in the whole UK; and many of this year’s 650,000 UCAS applicants are from outside this country. On the other hand, a lot of the places offered in universities aren’t actually available to British students either. They are only available to non-EU residents who pay high fees.
However, what we do know, from decades of growth, is that as fast as we increase the supply of university places, we increase the demand as well. Not for each and every degree: maths, science, engineering and language courses struggle to fill the places allocated for ‘home’ students. But generally, the appetite for higher education has turned out to be far greater than successive governments ever predicted. Moreover, if we take our own rhetoric seriously, about rapidly changing economies, and the need to upgrade skills, we should be planning for far more people to enter and re-enter higher education as adults.
At which point we run up against the rigidities of the current British system. Almost all our higher education is provided by large, multi-faculty universities with a strong commitment to research. Universities of this sort are among the defining institutions of modern societies – and they devour cash. Libraries, laboratories and workshops, plant and facilities, ICT infrastructure, and a whole range of administrative offices and overheads all eat up resources: doing almost all our higher level education in such institutions ties us into a model which is inherently costly. And if we try to keep the model, but do it on the cheap, we will simply end up with a fourth or fifth-rate sector, rather than one of the best in the world.
Our unitary system is, in fact, unusual. France, for example, has university technical institutes, as well as both universities and Grandes Ecoles; Germany and the Netherlands have polytechnics. Our system resulted from the decision, in 1992, to abolish polytechnics. And although the ‘post 1992’ universities recruit more part-time and older students than the rest of the sector, the result is that we see ‘higher education’ overwhelmingly in terms of the young would-be undergraduates whose applications flood into UCAS every year. Universities of a traditional sort, and undergraduates of a traditional sort, are so enormous a group than any other bits of the system vanish from sight and escape attention.
One result is that part-time students in traditional institutions have been consistently short-changed in terms of help with both fees and maintenance support. Even more regrettable, for the long-term, is the more or less complete neglect of higher education provision in further education colleges. In the United States, community colleges are classified and treated as part of the higher education system, serve local communities, and recruit a student population that is overwhelmingly part-time and adult. They essentially guarantee access to higher education for anyone with the basic entry qualifications, soaking up a demand which continues to grow and co-existing with a highly competitive and selective university sector. In the US, close to a third of those enrolled on credit-bearing courses (which count towards degrees) are based in community colleges.
The contrast with the UK is dramatic. Over the last twenty years, FE colleges have become ever more dominated by 16-19 year olds: only 3% of UK-based degree students are studying in FE colleges for even part of their course. In spite of regular promises and feel-good speeches from politicians, the college sector’s potential has been effectively ignored; policies are adopted without any attention to their current or future impact outside ‘universities proper’. Current discussions of university fee policies are also and ominously being conducted almost entirely in terms of full-time 18-21 year olds, based in traditional institutions. Financial stringency alone suggests that it is time we took a wider view. So does our economic future.