Graeme Atherton, Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), University of West London and Gordon Marsden, Shadow Minister for Higher and Further Education and Skills from 2015 to 2019. You can find Graeme and Gordon on Twitter @NEONHE @GordonMarsden.
Lighter days, brighter COVID statistics and the tremendous NHS achievement of mass vaccination across the UK. Spring has sprung – but even though the shoots of recovery promise more normal living, there remains a complex and potentially precarious route map towards achieving that goal post-COVID.
Where, though, does higher education in England stand now in the midst of this uncertain future? How much will, according to Oxford Economics, the £95 billion contributed by the sector to UK GDP annually count for in the route map for a post-COVID future for all those who work, study or administer in higher education institutions?
We, with other co-founders, launched in December 2020 a new campaigning group called Right to Learn (R2L). It takes its inspiration from the 2019 Lifelong Learning Commission we were part of. R2L is calling for everyone in the UK to have access to a new statutory right to learn, whatever their age or background.
We have been thinking long and hard about how that would fit and affect education. We have done that not just in the light of the rather amorphous post-Augar holding statement which the Government put out in late January but also the far more detailed proposals in their Skills for Jobs White Paper set out at the same time. We are in no doubt that higher education has a crucial role in developing a resilient post-COVID economy, social cohesion and the education and skills we need over coming decades.
But to do that higher education needs to be part of a chain of progression for education and skills that stretches over the life course. It should be a key component in that pathway to the statutory right to learn which is at the centre of R2L’s vision.
In order to take the opportunities that being part of a truly lifelong learning agenda offers through higher education will need to extend its offer to learners, alert to the fact that the worlds of higher education, further education, online, digital and social media are increasingly morphing into each other. As Professor Dave Phoenix argued in his recent Right2Learn blog at the end of February, higher education can go beyond the 18-to-24 cohort and reach those across the life course injecting much greater flexibility in its offer to learners. To realise these opportunities however, higher education will need far greater support than it is receiving from the Government as it seeks to navigate what is already a very challenging environment.
Higher education’s perfect storm
The pandemic‘s impact on higher education has turbocharged trends that were already beginning to cluster before COVID struck. On the international front the impact of Brexit bringing about the scrapping by the Government of UK membership of Erasmus+ and continuing uncertainty about adequate funding from Government for effective higher education participation in the EU’s Horizon programme, along with UK tensions with China, have challenged the role that international recruitment and collaboration can play in higher education in the UK.
Domestically, the pandemic has impacted on graduate employment as it has for those across the qualifications spectrum. There has been an increase of a third in the percentage of young graduates who are unemployed. This increase has been even greater for young Black graduates with an increase in around 50% meaning that 1-in-3 are now unemployed. Graduates remain better positioned than those with fewer qualifications but rising unemployment for those with degrees only adds to the view held by some in government that there are too many students pursuing qualifications of variable quality.
The Government’s view of what constitutes quality and worth in higher education has further challenged the sector. The emphasis has increasingly been on STEM subjects with courses in the creative and humanities areas (as well as business and law) seemingly being less favoured. It is in these ‘non-STEM’ courses however, where you will find the majority of students. The value of STEM graduates to the economy is unquestionable. But the evidence also suggests that the skills needed as the shape of the economy changes even more quickly as a result of COVID will come from non-STEM graduates as well. In government, there has been an increasing tendency to entrench silos with rhetoric pitting higher education and further education against each other. As with the debate over higher education and further education that Dave Phoenix and many others have emphasised, it is not a question of either/or. We need both.
The skepticism with which this Government views higher education has been borne out by how they have engaged with higher education during the pandemic. Paul Blomfield, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Students has talked about a ‘year of neglect’ by government where higher education is concerned. In England, it appears well down the list of government priorities where additional funding for the sector and students are concerned, in contrast to how higher education has been supported in other parts of the UK.
The chorus of unease that rippled across MPs of all parties on April 15 quizzing the Universities Minister about the level of financial support available and the delayed return to campus was palpable. The former BEIS Secretary of State Greg Clark openly criticized the Universities Minister for ignoring statistics and advice from the Chief Medical Officer that COVID transmission risks for students returning to campus were relatively low.
On the one hand, the Government has been relatively indifferent to the needs of higher education over the last year, this does not mean it has been happy to let the sector go its own way. Interventions from the Universities Minister on ‘free speech’ legislation and decolonisation of higher education curricula, along with the surprising appointment of a new Chair for the Office for Students with close connections to the Prime Minister show the desire to control higher education and place it within a broader government agenda.
Riding the storm – how lifelong learning can help
The set of challenges above represent something of a perfect storm for higher education. Short and longer term challenges are stacking up with a government in power that has a very different vision for the sector than the majority of those in it. A more concerted focus on lifelong learning may provide at least some light at the end of the tunnel. Not only would it reduce dependence on a limited number of recruitment markets, it would align the sector more closely with the thinking of the Government and the wider policy community.
There has been a flurry of reports in the past two to three years that have appeared covering adult education and lifelong learning, including the Lifelong Learning Commission which reported in November 2019 and which inspired the creation of the Right2Learn campaign.
The Government has ridden this wave with a number of measures to enhance lifelong learning announced as part of its recent Skills for Jobs White Paper and now unveiled in the Queen’s Speech in the Skills Bill. Sadly, these measures include a number of flaws. By Ministers allowing, as they have, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) to establish and micromanage a reduced and centralised list of courses that would be eligible for learners to take free of charge at Level 3 through the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, they risk cutting off at the knees the ability and willingness of adult learners to progress to Level 4 and then if they wish to Level 6 and higher education. Research for the House of Commons Library for the Labour Party estimates that over 9 million people will be ineligible for this Lifetime Skills Guarantee.
Nor is eligibility the only issue. As Tim Blackman, Vice Chancellor of the Open University, pointed out in an article in Times Higher Ed on March 16, the silos in England between technical and academic routes also threaten to undermine the effectiveness of this guarantee.
If higher education is to be supported to really engage with lifelong learning as it could do, then we need to go beyond the piecemeal solutions offered by the Government at present. It needs to be part of a broader cross-generational strategy, such as that envisaged over a decade ago in the visionary Learning Through Life report authored by Tom Schuller and the late David Watson. Strong incentives to attract would-be learners at whatever age into a lifetime association with higher education need to be in place with a huge expansion for higher education access courses to encourage them down that path.
There are a number of more immediate ways government could enable higher education to fully participate in lifelong learning. As detailed in Gordon Marsden’s HEPI blog of July 2020, these could include replicating a version of the University of Cambridge‘s current £1 million adult bursaries initiative (which via its Institute of Continuing Education will assist a thousand adult part-time learners to study for qualifications) with targeted matched funding for higher education institutions with more modest endowments who are based in disadvantaged areas.
In addition, place-focused universities could be identified, incentivising them to co-operate with feeder further education colleges in their area, together with looking at how to reopen satellite campuses of post-92 universities in higher education cold spots that were closed by austerity. To support learners directly a Lifelong Learning grant or allowance for distance and part-time adult learners in higher education could be trialled, echoing arrangements in Wales and Scotland. Those proposals remain even more relevant now. Enabling higher education institutions to broaden their recruitment across all ages could also strengthen their future financial security. They cannot afford anymore to depend solely on recruiting just younger learners – from here or overseas.
There are things in the Government’s proposals to support lifelong learning and post-COVID recovery that have merit – but they need to come faster and to include higher education more explicitly.
The promised structures for credit accumulation and transfer (incidentally one of the recommendations in the 2019 Lifelong Learning Commission) could prove key to bringing that much needed flexibility to how learners can access higher education and reaching new, older audiences. But they need to come far sooner than the Government’s 2025 target. The recently announced Levelling Up and Shared Prosperity Funds will provide much need investment to plug some of the gap left by the European Social Fund (ESF) and other EU funds that served a similar purpose. But to ensure that higher education and further education can participate in these new opportunities as they did in the ESF, a ring-fenced strand of targeted money from those funds is needed. Prioritising higher education and further education in this way would chime with increasing recognition of the major role each sector plays in restoring social capital as well as providing employment and investment in the communities where they are situated. The importance of this civic role, for higher education in particular, has also been highlighted by HEPI publications before.
If we believe that the right to learn is a human right, then the principle of progression, open to all would-be learners at every stage of their lives, is an essential one. Higher education is an essential part of any lifelong learning agenda, supporting the economic and social well-being of all members of British society, improving the health, happiness and enrichment of the individuals who participate in it. Access and opportunity has been a noble strand in the foundation and mission of our universities and higher education institutions stretching right back to the Middle Ages. Policy makers and Ministers who ignore that trajectory will do so at their – and our – peril.