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Peter Scott: How do we tackle the crisis of mass higher education?

  • 8 October 2021
  • By Peter Scott

This blog was written by Peter Scott who is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Studies at the UCL Institute of Education and Commissioner for Fair Access in Scotland.

My new book – Retreat or Resolution? Tackling the Crisis of Mass Higher Education – which is published by Policy Press today only touches lightly on the two immediate obsessions of higher education policy making – the future of fees (in England) after Augar, and the shock of COVID-19.

But perhaps in any case we should not expect too much from the Government’s long delayed response to the Augar review. Ministers seem to be more interested in fighting woke wars than in systematic reform, although the new Secretary of State for Education may turn out to be a pleasant exception. Augar was designed to fine tune the high-fee funding regime introduced a decade ago, which had proved to be rather unpopular to students (and made them prey for Corbynism), hardly a surprise. But its recommendations, if implemented, were just about radical enough potentially to undermine some key features of that regime, and threaten its long-term viability. Conservative Ministers are unlikely to want to go there.

As for COVID-19 and its aftershocks, it has clearly been very bad news indeed for access. Its impact on education, as on health, housing, employment and almost everything else, has been to increase inequality. From those who have least the most has been taken away, in the COVID variant on the Matthew principle. The differential impact of school interruptions, digital poverty, attainment, disrupted outreach … the full impact of the pandemic on access may not be felt for several years.

However, the argument that the emergency shift to online learning over the past 18 months – although institutions, and in particular, their staff did rise to the challenge magnificently – will lead to some kind of paradigm shift looks frail. COVID has not kickstarted a long-overdue revolution in how students learn and therefore is unlikely to usher in a Brave New World of flexible and blended delivery. Valuable lessons have certainly been learnt, many of the how-not-to variety. But at the moment a powerful nostalgia for the ‘old ways’ of face-to-face teaching and student mingling on campus seems to be in the ascendant.

My book is about a more fundamental crisis facing mass higher education. One element is the difficult-to-dispel unease that it has failed to deliver many of the benefits it promised – or, as I would prefer to put it – it has not yet delivered these benefits. Back to access – and success. Roughly half of school leavers do not continue on to higher education. Of those that do students from more deprived communities, and most ethnic minorities, are concentrated in post-1992 universities, colleges and ‘alternative providers’. Our ‘top universities’, the Russell Group plus and / or minus, continue to draw the bulk of their students from the most socially advantaged groups. ‘Top jobs’ and many key professions, continue to be dominated by ‘top people’ – even after two generations or more of mass expansion.

The right response, however, is not to give up on mass higher education but to double down. We need to advance rapidly towards near-universal access within a well articulated tertiary education system, not highly uneven access (universal for the middle class, rationed for the rest) within an increasingly stratified higher education system. This is the opposite of what the Government is planning post-Augar, to ‘cool’ demand for universities without imposing an actual ‘cap’ on student numbers.

The current plans seems to be to reduce the salary threshold at which graduates start to pay back their student loans, in effect a sharp tax rise on highly educated young people, although wilder ideas such as introducing State-imposed ‘minimum qualifications’ cannot be entirely excluded. The effect (and intention?), of course, will be to reserve university education for a suitably entitled elite, while leaving further education to the hewers of wood and drawers of water. 

That brings me to the second element in my claimed ‘crisis’. Has the incomplete revolution of mass higher education really left universities lacking public and political support (not quite the same thing)? Here the picture is confused. There can be no doubt that the great majority of parents, even from modest backgrounds, want their children to go on to higher education. Survey after survey has demonstrated that beyond doubt. Equally student demand remains strong, as increased year-on-year intakes also demonstrate. ‘Going to uni’ is now firmly embedded in our national culture.

And yet … only the most optimistic would claim that higher education could ever mobilise the same degree of popular affection, and political support, as the National Health Service. No National Insurance rise to provide additional funding for universities which are widely seen as having tricked a decade of ‘austerity’ by charging high fees jointly paid by students and taxpayers. Much of this wobbly support for universities is not their fault. They suffer the sneering aimed at all teachers, heightened perhaps by the war on woke. But that is not the whole story. There is a shocking democratic default in the governance of higher education. Externally the only real accountability is subordination to an, inevitably politicised, Secretary of State and his agents. Internally individual staff, and senates, have been equally subordinated to a growing management class, made up of hard-working and (mainly) honourable individuals but a management class nevertheless.

I know that if anyone in the best policy circles starts to speculate about involving – really involving – local and regional leaders in governance or arguing for a restoration of academic self-government (or not instinctively treating trade unions as the enemy within) is asked politely to leave the room. But in my book I do precisely that. Put simply, higher education needs to democratised, and maybe de-bureaucratised just a bit, if it is build unassailable support.

Finally – the most important point in my book – any ‘crisis’ that mass higher education is experiencing must be set on a much wider canvas. All 21st-century societies are beset with multiple crises – of the legitimacy of democratic government in an age of poisonous ‘populism’ and resurgent authoritarianism; of growing inequality on deadly display during the pandemic but also dead bodies washing up on the shores of the rich world; of a combination of toxic ‘old media’ and unaccountable ‘new media’; of the advance of ‘identity’ at the expense of solidarity; of crumbling global governance in the face of geopolitical antagonisms; and, above all, of a degrading environment. All these crises are pregnant with disaster, but also tinged with hope. Why should our own modest experiment in higher education be any different?

2 comments

  1. albert wright says:

    Professor Scott has some interesting comments on the HE sector and a small plug for his book.

    However, I see no crisis in “…mass Higher Education” but as Peter Scott implies, the use of the word “crisis” is probably a good way of getting a bit of attention in any sector.

    As for the purpose of the book, a plea for “….higher education needs to [be] democratised, and maybe de-bureaucratised just a bit, if it is [to] build unassailable support.”, is for me a non-starter.

    The HE sector is working sufficiently well as it is. There is little evidence to show the public is interested in “greater democracy” or academic self-government or that the greater involvement of staff and regional / local politicians would make it any better.

  2. Bernard says:

    In what sense is the HE sector ‘working sufficiently well as it is’? Entrants from poorer socio-economic groups are not well represented in the higher prestige universities, student debt is rising on a yearly basis, both academic and professional services staff are facing increasing job precarity, increased workloads and mental health issues, the purposes of universities are being questioned, graduates are increasingly ending up in non-graduate jobs, league tables are poor indicators of teaching quality and so on… maybe you could enlighten us on what is working well?

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