Choices. Lots and lots of them. Facing all young people, all the time. We’ve all heard the political rhetoric and the concerns that now, more than ever, young people are pressurised into making life-changing decisions when in a relatively uninformed position.
Yet through the options open to them and the way that they are being presented, the choices that these people make is not just affecting their futures but the future of the higher education sector as a whole.
There are a few known ideological viewpoints to be aware of to understand what I mean.
- There is not enough resource in higher education currently to cater to the demand. There are estimated 700,000 applicants this year to higher education and they are competing for far fewer places. Demand is there from the applicants. The reasons for going are many and disparate, but the sheer number is all that matters in this instance.
- Government cannot introduce policy that discriminates entry to university to anyone or risk political suicide. The rich and poor children that happen to be able to go to university cannot help that they were born into rich or poor families. They can however help the effort they put into what they learn, study and pursue in their academic/vocational choices (with appropriate information and guidance).
- The perception of the quality or ‘value’ of higher education has decreased dramatically in the past 20 years. Statistics abound from concerned parents not wanting their child to waste money going to university or from young people expecting guaranteed employment on completion of their course. Many factors influence negative perceptions, but for now the mere fact of acknowledging that there is a bad view of this level of education will suffice.
So not enough resource; no way to publicly block certain people and a bad perception of quality generally. What can policy-makers do to improve the score without losing valuable political capital alienating core members of the voting community? They can make those in the system dictate the fate of the system by subtly forcing them to make tough decisions purposefully designed to shrink the numbers applying.
Just take a look at the policies we know about at the moment or those we think are most likely to be included. They strike me as being designed to slowly shave off those that don’t really want to go to higher education. Think of the hurdles that are now placed in front of the average GCSE level student. There are hundreds of questions that I don’t need to go into right now. They are quite obvious e.g. family history, friends, perceived appeal etc.
The way the system currently works means that we have oversubscribed universities. So how do the new rules start to solve this? Here are a few examples:
- Fees. We do not know if fees of an average of £9,000 will impact the number of applications to university. My gut feeling says it will deter more, but if the communication campaigns can improve enough then those that truly want to go will regardless of socio-economic background. If the gut feeling is right, here is where some will get shaved off.
- Of those students that survive this hurdle and still want to go to university, they will undoubtedly start to look for courses that have a proven track record in employability and prestige. HEFCE/UUK/GuildHE’s work on the KIS is testament to this. Willetts’ prediction that students will drive course demand is correct. This will, theoretically, increase competition in some areas; decrease competition in others. The latter will eventually lead to those departments and likely institutions merging, reducing or closing down entirely. Again this shaves off numbers and ‘dead-weight’ in the sector. The great thing about this is that the students decide, so can be blamed almost entirely for HEIs closing. It’ll be interesting to watch what happens in the next 5-10 years.
- Post-Qualifications-Applications – Mark Leach predicts that this is almost guaranteed to be in the White Paper. UCAS claims that around 55% of grade predictions are wrong and Steve Smith of UUK said that about 47% were too high. Critics argue that it could hamper social mobility as those that tend to over predict are teachers from state schools and colleges. If this is included, will be yet another opportunity for prospective students to reassess their need for university, and potentially drop out of the process.
When the White Paper is eventually released, there will most likely be more ‘opportunities’ for students to decide for themselves whether they want to pursue a future in higher education. Where they go instead is a cause for concern in itself. But the view that seems to be slowly seeping through from Government is that higher education is an unwieldy, complicated beast that needs to be refined. It will cost political capital for them to do it, so students are being nudged to do the job for them.
This will force universities to communicate, capitulate and lobby to define what the ultimate purpose of higher education is in today’s economic climate. Specialisation will most likely start to occur with similar institutions joining together should financial prudence necessitate. Change to the current mission group structure may even occur. Education reform may be coming in a bigger way than we might guess.
Hold on tight.