IES conference report: The value of higher education: from higher skills pipeline to social mobility passport
1 Feb 2013
Emma Pollard, Senior Research Fellow
In November 2012, IES held its annual policy conference at the Commonwealth Club in London. The focus of the conference was the value of higher education (HE), and it brought together a range of stakeholders from universities, colleges, HE bodies, government agencies, employers, think-tanks and research organisations to explore ‘value’ from a range of perspectives. The conference was timely as the sector was in the early stages of the greatest change seen for decades: institutions and individuals were facing the reality of a threefold increase in full-time undergraduate fees; for the first time part-time students were being given access to student loans for fees which went some way towards levelling the playing field between full- and part-time study; and new institutions had the potential to enter the HE market. At the same time, restrictions were being placed on student numbers and there had been a large-scale reduction in central government funding for places. Meanwhile the country continues to be in the grip of economic recession that is restricting alternative pathways to the labour market for young people and increasing competition in the graduate labour market.
Strengths and benefits of higher education in the UK
The conference was opened by IES Research Director, Jim Hillage, who began the day with a review of the strengths of UK HE. He talked of high and growing participation rates coupled with low drop-out rates, high levels of student satisfaction and the graduate wage premium. In contrast, he also outlined the challenges facing the sector, noting rising graduate unemployment and underemployment, and questioned the quality of graduates exiting from HE and their fit with labour market requirements.
Gordon McKenzie, Deputy Director for higher education policy at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), spoke about the shape and structure of HE and the demand for higher-level skills. He talked positively about the economic evidence of the impact of higher-level skills on employers, on their productivity, success and innovation; and provided evidence that employer demand for such skills continues to rise to meet supply and that this demand is anticipated to grow. He noted that employers want mathematical skills, highly developed soft skills, and an understanding of the workplace and business in general. He also talked about the benefits of higher-level skills to individuals, in terms of their lifetime earnings, employment rates and progression rates, and on health. He felt it was too early to judge whether the HE sector changes had discouraged full-time entrants but was concerned that some part-time provision was already falling, and that mature entrants might be disproportionally affected by this. He concluded that the value of HE was ‘about breeding enthusiasm and honouring our responsibility to all’.
The longer-term view for higher education
Professor Nigel Thrift, Vice Chancellor of the University of Warwick, spoke about the long-term view for HE. He talked about how, whilst many of the arguments raised in the Robbins Report1 are still relevant, the changes since Robbins (in 1963) have caused a series of dilemmas and tensions which make it difficult to answer the key question of what or who a university is for. These changes include: scale massification and how HE has become part of the fabric of life; diversification of institutions and funding; expanding missions of HE Institutions; and globalisation. Professor Thrift felt that institutions need to question: whether they can be systemic producers of new knowledge, whether they are places for critical reflection, whether they can guarantee the free flow of ideas and remain politically disinterested, whether they are entitled to public support now they are grand economic actors, and whether they can guarantee the same quality of experience across multiple locations. He concluded that there is now no longer one common role for HE, but that there are at least four accounts of equal value: elite universities with global attraction undertaking research and producing elites out of elites; specialist institutions teaching specialist knowledge in specialist ways; new globally networked universities with a presence across the world; and generally mass institutions with considerable international operations but limited research capacity, hybrids of public/private institutions serving labour markets and inducting skills.
Louis Coiffait, Head of Research at The Pearson Think Tank spoke of the evolution or revolution of HE, looking to the future to ask: who will be studying, where will they study, how will they study and why will they study? He talked about the growth of internationally mobile learners, which could be a huge opportunity for the UK and the growth in vocational learner numbers. He spoke of the English funding experiment, switching from public to private funding, as ‘throwing all the dice at once’ and raised concerns about the impact on mature learners and whether the change will really save money for the public purse. He also talked about the marketisation of the sector and the increasingly complex outcomes, and questioned whether students were equipped to make effective choices. He concluded that HE needs to respond to change but also to lead change; and that, as HE is about improving future society as well as being the engine of growth, the case needs to be made for more funding for the sector.
UK higher education in international comparison
Deborah Roseveare, Head of Skills Beyond School Division, Directorate for Education, of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), spoke of how UK HE compares internationally. She presented some challenging statistical evidence showing that in the UK there is no difference between the returns (net present value) to tertiary education and upper secondary education; and that having a tertiary education is no guarantee of a higher income. Further, although the UK performs well in terms of equity and social mobility, the fact that we have a proportion of young people in families with low parental attainment that is higher than the OECD average means that we face a challenge in terms of intergenerational mobility. She concluded her session by raising several implications for policy, such as the need to: ensure that relevant skills for the workplace are developed at every level of the education system; ensure quality learning outcomes at all levels; take an integrated policy approach to learning pathways; provide relevant, timely and reliable career guidance; develop relevant, transparent and meaningful qualifications; recognise that sustainable and inclusive growth needs to focus on the least skilled (to start long before HE, provide support for struggling students, provide second-chance education for the disadvantaged, and provide support at key transition points); and have a coherent set of financing arrangements. She finished by noting that effective policy reform takes time, it will be important to allow policies to work their way through for everyone, and that investment in capacity building would be needed to successfully implement reforms.
Questions and issues for the future
The conference finished with the Keynote address from Professor Les Ebdon, the incoming Director of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA). He spoke of the role of OFFA, which is to promote and safeguard fair access to HE for under-represented groups, and how monitoring shows improvements in widening participation (although there are still challenges in promoting access to the most selective universities). He spoke of the unknown territory of 2012 and beyond, and how we have yet to find out what works and see the impact of the 2012 changes. He acknowledged that many things influence participation besides fees – indeed the 2006 fee changes did not deter people from going to university; that the challenge of promoting fair access and sparking social mobility is a shared responsibility, for universities, colleges, teachers and parents to work together; and that in going forward we are asking universities to set themselves challenging targets. In the future, we will be measuring how well they do against these targets, thus shifting the emphasis from aspiration to actual outcomes. He concluded by stating: ‘Access and widening participation is not about social engineering and dumbing down HE. If we want social cohesion and a thriving economy we need to broaden the base of our universities. It is in the interests of every university to be seeking excellence wherever we can find it’.
Following each speaker there was a lively debate and questions raised during the conference included: What kind of graduates will we need in five years time? Should universities, students and graduates be thinking globally? If demand for places falls (again), will it be a cause for concern? With the price and number controls, will new types of provision be encouraged? How can we escape the notion of quality linked to mission, and the constant jockeying for position? How does the splintering of ‘roles’ fit with the one-size-fits-all funding model and the Performance Indicator standards? What are the roles of employers in HE? Where will private (and for-profit) institutions fit in the sector? Will there be a negative relationship between the costs and benefits with the increase in fees? Is the next challenge for HE about access to postgraduate study, as there are no funding arrangements in place and students have to pay fees up-front? Outreach at school level is vital, but how do we ensure this is impartial? How can OFFA act as a way of facilitating access for mature students? These questions remain relevant, and as the changes to the sector take hold we may start to find answers.
 The report of the Committee on Higher Education, chaired by Lord Robbins (the Robbins Report) was commissioned by the government and published in 1963. The report recommended immediate expansion of universities, and that all Colleges of Advanced Technology should be given the status of universities. Consequently, the number of full-time university students was to rise from 197,000 in the 1967-68 academic year to 217,000 in the academic year of 1973- 74 with “further big expansion” thereafter. The report also concluded that university places “should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment” (the so-called Robbins principle).