Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

We should be talking about a comprehensive university system

  • 24 August 2020
  • By Tom Fryer

This guest blog has been written by Tom Fryer, author of free-to-access ‘Naff: Universities and how to change them‘ and PhD researcher at the Manchester Institute of Education. You can find Tom on Twitter @TomFryer4 .

Everyone has been very ‘present’ recently. Not a Buddhist, awareness of your breath, kind of present. More the kind you feel when a smoke alarm goes off. 

In our personal lives, we have been focussed on the here and now. We have had to spend more time making sure that we and our loved ones are doing okay, or at least as good as can be.

Higher education policy discussions have been in much the same position. We have had to deal with one crisis after another, shifting from how to move universities online, to working our way through the current debacle over A Levels. All in all, we have been dashing about, but firmly rooted in the moment.

It is somewhat ironic that there has never been a more important moment to think about the future of higher education.

As issues around education and inequality have captured the public imagination, we have a real opportunity to share some of our ideas with a wider audience. Yes, it is true that so far most of the public debates have focussed on the current problems facing students and higher education institutions. But at a time when people are engaged and outraged about education, we have a golden opportunity to stimulate debate about the causes of the crises impacting universities and how we could reform the sector for the better.

I would argue that not only is there an opportunity to communicate alternative futures for the sector, we have a renewed sense of why it is so important to do this. As universities have spent the last few months putting out fires, do we not need to ask why the sector was so flammable in the first place?

We should be talking about a comprehensive university system. As was brilliantly outlined in Tim Blackman’s 2017 HEPI report, a comprehensive university system is one where academic selection has been abolished, opening up all institutions to any members of the public with the desire to learn. This has the benefit of ending the current conflation of ‘highly-selective’ with ‘high-quality’ institutions, which does nothing more than maintain the privilege of some institutions and results in a socially segregated sector. Not only this, but a comprehensive system could also have a huge range of benefits, from potential gains in student learning to promoting skills associated with democratic dialogue.

It is more than this though. Sharing and engaging people on the idea of a comprehensive university system automatically involves a conversation about the purpose of higher education. Now, at the heart of our current system lie the values of competition and hierarchy. We have a university system that is premised on separating the wheat from the chaff. It is a system that has not begun to come to terms with how your wheatiness and chaffiness is a product of your social position as much as your individual merit. We therefore have a university system that fails to be a resource for everyone in society.

A comprehensive university system has a very different purpose. Instead of social segregation, its main aim is to provide transformational learning opportunities for everyone across all of their lives. It tries to create a system that facilitates rather than hinders this goal.

There are a variety of ways we could create a comprehensive university system, with policies breaking into two main categories. The first set of policy solutions view the university sector as composing of individual institutions. The role of policy is to give these individual universities incentives to shift towards a more comprehensive intake. The original HEPI report explores a system of quotas by social class, backed up by financial penalties, to encourage individual universities to have a more representative student body.

The second category of policy solutions look at the university sector as a sector. For example, a sector-level solution might establish minimum entry standards that are applied equally to all universities. Students would continue to choose which universities they want to apply to, and if there was excess demand for a particular course, a lottery could be used to allocate places. Some students might not get into the university they want, but that is hardly a new problem.

If all of this sounds like a huge change, remember that it was only 50 years ago that women were unable to access some institutions. A comprehensive university system will not mean that libraries will suddenly start burning books, nor will all those great lecture series disappear into thin air. Similarly, problems around decolonising the curriculum and reforming governance are not fixed by magic. But we would have a system that prioritises education not social selection.  

Just think for a moment how different the last few months would have been if we had a more comprehensive university system. All those high-stakes exams would have been considerably less high stakes. The huge pressure on students to aim for the most selective universities would disappear. We would not have needed to create such heartache and stress by devising a grading system that slots students into our pre-existing hierarchy. We would only have been focussed on how we could give the best education to our current and future students.

At this time of public outrage about education, we need to be joining and guiding this discussion on the future of universities.

You might well disagree that a comprehensive university system is the way forward, but let us not miss this opportunity to engage in these future-focussed conversations.

What do we want our university system to do? How can we best achieve this? On the off chance that you would like to hear more about comprehensive universities, and a couple of other ideas for change, I wrote a short free-to-access book Naff: Universities and how to change them.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    Naff was not an easy read but a strange mix of story, fact, opinion and passion.

    Those who tend to succeed in life have advantages over others. That’s why they succeed. I doubt if they will give up their privileged position without a fight.

    Your ideas on a “wider purpose” as an objective for University education may lack majority support as most people do not like radical change and / or are too lazy to do much about it.

    Publicly funded higher education does need reform and a clearer vision of the intended outcomes to help decide what activities should be funded, how much should be spent, who will be the deliverers of the services and which individuals will benefit.

    I am not convinced that University for All is the right answer and I think it will be difficult to break the mould and kick aside the elements of hierarchy, meritocracy and elitism involved in our current understanding.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *