James Pinchbeck: Is there a perfect storm brewing in higher education?

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The growth in the provision of university education has been exponential over the last 25 years. It’s more the norm today that school leavers will go into higher education (HE) as opposed work or other settings.

However, will this trend continue? Or is it for the world of HE to experience a perfect storm?

As a parent considering our children’s future or through my wider involvement in education, both in HE and further education, I sense that there may be changes ahead.

Why? With rising student fees and as many students completing their studies with a not insurmountable debt, there does seem increasing pressure for people to consider the outcome of their studies and their employment and earning prospects.

Students today are as likely to be concerned about the employment opportunities post study, as they are the social life or the environment in which they are going to study. Universities are therefore charged with ensuring that their courses recognise this.

Equally, the wider provision of apprenticeships, including higher apprenticeships, does offer an increasingly attractive alternative proposition to more conventional studies that don’t offer the benefit of earn and learn along with a more determined route to employment.

Coupled with this, the further education sector, which has been given new freedoms to provide more in the way of employer led training for work force provision, offers a new consideration to school leavers who may find the more vocational route to work more attractive.

The growth in the provision of higher education has in part been achieved through student fees with the cost of these reaching new heights. Not least compared to those like myself who were an undergraduate some 30 years ago.

The difference being that debt, if one had any then, was only a few pounds and was normally repayable to the bank of mum and dad. Today’s students often face a much higher level of debt, the non repayment of which has led to a sizeable student loan book.

Whilst this may be something a student can live with, the risk is the debt becomes the responsibility of the university in which they studied with demands placed on them to repay. This is a liability which in addition to the need to service borrowing for infrastructure, will place the organisation under increased financial pressure.

Britain’s world class education has attracted international students to our universities for generations. Our world class universities will no doubt continue to recruit undergraduates and post graduates alike.

There is a real threat that issues around Visas, boarder control and a growing trend to the UK exporting courses and provision as opposed recruiting students, will lead to a decline in such student numbers.

Finally perhaps the biggest impact on the higher education sector will be its ability to adapt and respond to the need to change the way it works and delivers learning and research.

Certainly, the way students learn or are taught today is very different than it was 30 years ago, with often more self education or learning as opposed chalk talk or reading.

Equally the cost of provision has undoubtedly increased and there must be a need to look at the way such establishments are managed and operate, with greater use of technology, increased flexibility in delivery and changes to working practices and productivity.

No doubt the sector will respond to change, like its business counterparts and other areas of education. Those better placed to deal with such challenges are likely perhaps to be the newer universities who are often more agile or contemporary in their approach, along with some of our oldest and more widely acclaimed universities.