Commission on future proposes major changes for HE

Britain's high-powered Commission on the Future of Higher Education last week called for vocationally focused 'fee only' degrees for local students, a new postgraduate student loans system and credit recognition for MOOCs, among many other recommendations.

In its report, A Critical Path: Securing the future of higher education in England, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) commission – chaired by University of Warwick Vice-chancellor Nigel Thrift – acknowledged the tough economic conditions and the transformation over the past half century of higher education in Britain.

However, it suggested a raft of reforms and expansions to ensure that the sector continued to play a pivotal role in the country’s economic and social renewal.

Other commissioners were university heads Janet Beer of Oxford Brookes University, John Sexton of New York University, Sir Steve Smith of the University of Exeter and Sir Rick Trainor of King’s College London, as well as Sandra McNally, director of education and skills at LSE, Dame Jackie Fisher, chief executive of Newcastle College Group, Broadtek Ltd chair Hugh Morgan Williams and former Sheffield student union president Thom Arnold.

Some key proposals

Top of the commission’s 23 recommendations was that higher education opportunities continue to expand. Second, universities should be allowed to bid to provide an additional 20,000 student places, restricted to new £5,000 (US$6,700) ‘fee only’ degrees focusing on vocational learning, and offered to local students eligible for fee loans but not maintenance support.

While the current proportion of 18- to 21-year-olds entering higher education would be sustained, these locally available, flexible and low-cost courses would target those wanting vocationally oriented learning.

The commission recommended that the government prioritise more and better-quality apprenticeships and a structured system of college-based vocational learning, both to meet skills shortages and to provide more opportunities for youngsters not on the ‘A-level-to-university’ track.

To beef up advanced vocational learning, increased numbers of large further education colleges providing higher education should be able to award degrees and be granted the renewed use of the title ‘polytechnic’.

The national scholarship programme also came under the spotlight, with the IPPR commission recommending that it be done away with and replaced by an extra £1,000 student premium from those who had received free school meals or were from low-participating areas. Additional funding would come from reallocation of existing widening participation resources.

In an effort to ensure students were educated not just for individual advancement but also to be effective and responsible leaders who understood an increasingly diverse and interconnected world, it was recommended that eligibility for part-time loans be expanded.

Postgraduate loans, credit for MOOCs

The commission said the fact that universities offered no subsidised loans for postgraduates excluded many people from further study. The IPPR said a new postgraduate loans system to enable wider access would have no major long-term cost to the state, although the number of students applying for loans might have to be controlled.

There were numerous benefits to be gained from postgraduate studies, yet these students were generally faced with hefty upfront expenses and costly commercial loans.

And good news for distance learners; it was recommended that English higher education institutions embrace the potential of new technologies by recognising credits from low-cost online courses.

The commission said the Open University should accredit MOOCs – massive open online courses – provided via the FutureLearn programme so they could count towards degree programmes offered by the Open University and its partner universities.

Need for changes

“Over the past 50 years, higher education has been transformed from an elite system to one in which nearly half of all young people and more than a million students participate,” said Rick Muir, associate director of the IPPR.

“Our universities provide us with a significant national advantage as well as a vital public good. But the system faces growing future challenges, including increased international competition for students, the rise of new modes of learning, and unprecedented cuts to public spending.”

Universities and colleges were a major civic presence in almost every part of the country, he added. Research in the country was world class, second only to that in the US, but the forms of teaching and learning needed to change with the times and the challenge was for higher education institutions to adapt to more diverse needs and changing expectations.

The government needed to consider reforms to the £5 billion that companies received in training tax relief, instead offering better incentives to employees to invest in courses leading to accredited qualifications and continuing professional development, whether in further or higher education.

The commission also recommended that institutions be encouraged to collaborate in regional or other federations to secure research funding, and that institutions’ finances be monitored.

Where necessary, a new, single regulator would facilitate federations or mergers between universities. This new higher education regulatory body would be the result of a merger between the HEFCE – Higher Education Funding Council for England – the Quality Assurance Agency and the Office for Fair Access, and would simplify the relationship between universities and the government.

While new institutions could encourage innovation and promote competition, degree-awarding powers should be given only to those that exceeded demanding quality thresholds. Higher education institutions should also be encouraged to establish transfer arrangements with other regional and national institutions.

The new regulator should include accreditation of prior learning as a good practice in access agreements. It should also set benchmarks for how many transfer students institutions should aim to admit.