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How accurate were predictions for higher education in 2020?

  • 3 January 2020
  • By Rachel Hewitt

The end of a decade offers the chance to reflect on how higher education policy has changed in the past and where it will go in the future. Higher education has been through a turbulent time in recent years and there is no reason to assume the 2020s will be any different. But where did we predict we’d be entering this new decade? A number of reports and comment pieces set out their predictions for 2020 as a catchy goal (including a number of university strategies as Mike Ratcliffe has highlighted: https://twitter.com/mike_rat/status/1212473940058234880?s=21). So in this blog I examine how close the future-gazers got with their higher education predictions. 

Demand for Higher Education to 2020

The first analyses I looked at were HEPI’s own reports. In 2007, we published Demand for Higher Education to 2020 and beyond and in 2011 new analysis was published in Higher Education Supply and Demand to 2020. Both these reports highlighted the demographic trend that was on the way, with falling numbers of students. However, predictions were made that this would in part be balanced out by consistent levels of increasing demand for higher education until 2020. Both these trends have played out largely as predicted. 

Both reports highlighted that the existing cap on student numbers was going to become increasingly challenging with these higher levels of demand. Already at the time of writing, students were experiencing at 17% gap between supply and demand in access to university. What the authors could not have predicted is that the Coalition government would pledge to remove student number gaps totally in December 2013 for students from 2015/16. This of course led to higher student numbers than could realistically have been predicted and is a prime example of how one significant policy change can radically alter the trajectory of the higher education sector. The impact of this change also highlights how a reversal in this policy, as HEPI’s own Nick Hillman recently predicted, could alter current predictions of 300,000 more places in higher education by 2030

Horizon Scanning: what will higher education look like in 2020?

In 2013, the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education published Horizon Scanning: what will higher education look like in 2020? While the remit for the report was worldwide, many of its predictions highlighted impacts on UK universities. 

Rather than predicting that technology would radically alter the way higher education would operate entering 2020, the expectations from this report were for incremental change where technology is guided by the environment it finds itself in. A notable part of this was reference to the changes which were expected to be brought about by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). But these have largely not materialised. It will be interesting to see whether the impact of developments in technology will continue to take this gradual approach through the next decade. 

The Observatory’s report also predicted that governments that decreased spending in HE would not loosen the conditions attached to this funding. The evidence in the UK seems to support this. Government funding for university teaching has decreased sharply, but universities are increasingly being held to account through initiatives such as the Teaching and Research Excellence Frameworks as well as the new Knowledge Exchange Framework.  

The final prediction which has come true is that the idea of higher education as a public good would come under threat. Universities have experienced more negative media coverage over recent years and are entering 2020 with a need to continue to make the case for their role to both policymakers and the general public.

Guardian higher education live chat with sector experts

It was not only formal reports where predictions were made for 2020. In a 2012 Guardian live chat, sector experts including from the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (now part of AdvanceHE), University Alliance and academics made their predictions about where higher education would be entering 2020. Various themes emerged, including that employers would need to make a greater contribution to the funding of higher education. While this has not yet occurred, the topic hasn’t gone away. Johnny Rich, who was part of the live chat, went on to publish a HEPI Policy Note in November 2018 about how one model of employer contributions could work.

The commentators predicted there would be greater divergence in higher education providers. While government policy has endeavoured to bring in new providers and broaden the offering of existing providers, this has only impacted the sector to a limited degree. Some universities specialise, but most are still trying to do it all, seeking to excel in teaching and research, and be local, national and international institutions. 

Predictions were also made that technology would bring a reduction in the social experience of higher education. This is something disproved by HEPI’s own research – the HEPI/AdvanceHE Student Academic Experience Survey demonstrates face-to-face contact hours have not decreased significantly over the last decade, despite the other changes in higher education. The HEPI/Unite Students ‘The New Realists’ report also shows students’ preference is still for face-to-face learning and the social experiences that come alongside this.

Looking back at these past predictions gave me three takeaway points on how we predict the next decade in higher education:

  1. While details may change, the higher education sector is generally fairly successful at predicting its broad direction of travel,
  2. Single policy changes, such as the removal of the number cap, can have a radical impact.
  3. Some themes will persist across decades, such as the impact of technology on higher education.

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