It’s no secret that higher education has been changing over the past 20 years. The introduction of tuition fees, the increases in these fees, the lifting of the cap on student numbers, the recession, Brexit, to name but a few things, have all impacted on the higher education sector.
My concern is that all the negative press around higher education might be putting people off coming to University or that our efforts to deliver wider choice is missing the mark. Whatever your perspective, you can’t get away from the fact that times are changing but what does this mean for us as a sector, individual institutions, and our learners?
What is different?
As higher education institutions (in my case a University), we find ourselves working to continually adapt to these changes without losing our learning and development ethos (or our academic integrity!). As someone who was a student in the early 2000s (just after tuition fees arrived) and who has worked in / around the higher education sector ever since, I have witnessed changes first hand. Now as a lecturer I find myself redefining my role as a researcher and educator as times continue to change.
Reading through topical articles on the sector, it is clear there have been plenty of changes – from the introduction of tuition fees for undergraduates in 1998 to the Government’s higher education White Paper (May 2016) and concerns over the impact of Brexit. The changes proposed by the White Paper (and the subsequent legislation) has been a particular cause for concern. The White Paper outlines key priorities for competition, choice, and architecture which (on the surface at least) has good intentions to improve standards and increase choice for students. However, closer inspection reveals a number of potential negative outcomes that could arise. Firstly, consider how competition will change the shape of the relationship between universities and students. We are moving from the traditional educator-student paradigm to an increasingly consumer focus. I have already had students tell me that because they pay for their degree I should pass them and, even more worryingly, give them the grade they want (rather than the one they deserve). Also, whilst competition can be a good thing for a sector and the private sector might get involved in developing more innovative courses, there are concerns that commercial enterprises focus on the more lucrative end of the market (e.g. courses which lead to higher paid careers) and leave traditional institutions to deliver core work around lower-paid occupations and the widening participation agenda (i.e. the drive to reduce inequality/increase social mobility). Combine this with the Teaching Excellence Framework which strives to measure higher education with all its diversity and complexity with blunt standardised tools, and a breakaway from an emphasis on research, and you can see why educators are concerned. The potential negative impact of Brexit – e.g. on the eligibility of international students and staff to live, study and/or work in the UK, the feasibility of collaborative research, and access to research funding – has also been hotly debated.
It’s not all doom and gloom
I appreciate that, so far, I have had a somewhat negative perspective of changes in the higher education sector. However, I would like to emphasise that it’s not all doom and gloom. For example, a recent trends and patterns report by Universities UK comparing 2006-07 to 2015-16 found that, whilst the overall number of students is similar (2.3 million approx.) there are more younger students, more women, and more international students than previously. There are also record levels of people from disadvantaged backgrounds studying at University suggesting the drive for the widening participation agenda is starting to take effect. There is also a large uptake in postgraduate level courses – almost over 530,000 people were studying at this level in 2015/16 – indicating a drive for more specialised training. Furthermore, whilst the proportion of (non-UK) EU students has only risen 1% over the past 10 years, non-EU students are making up a larger proportion of the student population than previously (14% in 2015-16 compared to 10% in 2006-07) suggesting that Brexit is less of a concern than we originally thought, at least in terms of student numbers. Furthermore, despite all this talk of changes, some positive things remain the same. For example, graduates are more likely to be employed and have higher earnings on average compared to non-graduates (UUK, 2017).
So, what does this all mean?
This is the key question right? To a certain extent, my views on the state of the higher education sector are of limited value without considering how we should move forward. As noted above, I am concerned about how the changes might be acting as a barrier to some learners. For example, the UUK (2017) report found that taught courses have increased their market share. However, they also found demand for non-accredited courses and for part time study has reduced begging the question of whether some learners feel unable to engage with us in our current set up. In particular, a focus on face-to-face and full time modes of study means it is more difficult for working adults to fit learning into their lifestyle. We therefore need to think about alternative modes of study to ensure we are not sacrificing options for some learners to boost options for others. On a related note, maybe all this focus on choice is not actually delivering courses that people want to do. I am aware that security is a fast moving industry and I can see some changes – e.g. introduction of courses such as fraud investigation at my institution – which are in response to evolving issues. However, I wonder if we are missing something. For example, what is the next hot topic? Do we need more courses on counter-terrorism? Or perhaps maritime security? Or aviation security? Also, should we be thinking about alternative modes of study such as distance learning and/or CPD type short courses? I am conscious that we should be developing courses with industry partners and so I would encourage anyone with a view on this to get in touch and be part of the network which guides our future provision.
Overall, my ponderings have essentially made me realise that, rather than resist change we should see these as opportunities (where possible!) but retain a focus on standards and good pedagogical practice. We need to find a balance – by all means we should highlight the risks of new policies and political change – but we also need to recognise change is coming and so we need to adapt to survive. I suppose the next question is what do we strive to keep and what do we change?
Recent shifts in higher education might be driving a more consumer based approach at Universities. Whilst this is not always conducive to maintaining the ethos of independence in higher education, it does make us think about stepping out of the ivory tower and consider what courses we are offering and whether these are fit for purpose. We are striving to develop new and improved courses whilst also maintaining high academic standards and industry recognition/certification. If you have any comments or feedback about what is needed, please do let us know. We aim to please!
UUK report (2017) can be downloaded from http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/facts-and-stats/data-and-analysis/Pages/patterns-and-trends-2017.aspx
Adapt and Survive
By Amy Burrell
Amy holds a BSc in Applied Psychology, an MSc in Forensic Behavioural Science, and a PhD in Forensic Psychology. Amy is a Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at Coventry University and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to discuss courses. She was previously the Training Manager for Perpetuity Training who specialise in security training (see www.perpetuitytraining.com) and is also involved in the Crime Linkage International NetworK (C-LINK) (see www.crimelinkage.org)