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TRIFURCATION? The Shape of Higher Education in 2030

  • 5 April 2023
  • By John Cater
  • On 22 June 2023, John Cater will complete three decades as the Director and Vice-Chancellor of Edge Hill University, rendering him the longest-serving head of a higher education institution in the UK. HEPI is marking the occasion by publishing his thoughts on higher education in 2030.

Thirty years ago, I was a geographer.  Not a ‘proper’ geographer, I was too interested in social, economic and political theory.  But staff to student ratios on field trips had to be obeyed.  So, twice a year I clambered up mountains, paddled through streams and dug soil pits, having been released from nineteenth and twentieth-century doctrines by my physical colleagues. High up in the Langdales, I broke the spade.

Re-purposed, the flow meter slipped from my grasp, crashed into the rocks and raced down the hillside, taking the left-hand of the three routes the fast-flowing stream took to the valley floor. Alongside opprobrium, I discovered trifurcation.

Trifurcation, to split into three.  Increasingly that word has re-entered my vocabulary over the past twelve months.  Will higher education seven years hence look like it does today and how it has through much of my tenure, or will it trifurcate?

There is no doubt that there is a perceived ‘gold standard’, a three-year full-time residential degree, consumed in late teens and early twenties, away from home, ideally in a university regarded as part of the perceptual ‘elite’. The demand is strong, a ‘rite of passage’ built into most every middle-class parent’s life plan, a transition between late adolescence and early adulthood, an award that enhances life chances and acts as a badge of rank. And there is no doubt that this perceived gold standard will sustain; applications to higher tariff institutions continue to grow even when overall demand is flat, and no Secretary of State is going to enforce caps at the upper end of the demand spectrum, though they may continue to use financial levers to shift a greater part of the cost burden, both whilst studying (for example, a 2.8% increase in maintenance loans whilst inflation accelerates to 10.4%) and beyond (with longer loan terms and a lowered repayment threshold).

Similarly, no Secretary of State is going to want to be seen to restrict aspiration, however vilified the fifty per cent target became. But Ministers will want to, and are beginning to, re-shape what higher education means.  The most obvious manifestation of this is the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, up to four years of loan funding to be drawn down at any time between eighteen and sixty.  The pilots have, at best, stuttered into life, and the Minister has restricted his ambitions to ‘a few thousand’ participants by 2025/26, but there is no doubting the policy intent, articulated by Robert Halfon when he spoke of a Universities, Colleges and Apprenticeships Scheme (UCAS).  And, indeed, UCAS itself is in the process of change, with degree apprenticeships from private sector PLCs appearing alongside more mainstream university offerings next year.

How far could this go?  The evidence base is thin, and past attempts to shift the societal and sectoral focus away from three years of full-time study have been largely unsuccessful, but the political commitment and drive, from both sides of the House, has seldom been stronger.  And the cost pressures on the State, at a time when the eighteen-year-old cohort is growing rapidly, have seldom been greater.

It is instructive to watch the behaviour of the large private sector providers of student housing, and the reshaping of their portfolios. They shout loud of the difficulties of getting sites and planning permissions to resolve the student housing crisis in London and the conurbations, and their investment strategies appear evidentially based on increasing their stock in cities where universities have a strong brand and strong demand.  But the divestment strategy is perhaps more informative still, exiting lower quality provision in cities and towns where brand identity and student demand is less evident.

So, what is the second stream of this trifurcated flow?  City- or conurbation-based; strong links to business and industry; a positive reputation for knowledge exchange; excellent widening participation credentials; strong and effective partnerships with a network of further education providers; credit frameworks, facilitating the delivery of Levels 4 and 5 and providing progression to Level 6; home-based students, often combining studying with work; and, a decent sprinkling of lifelong learners. Uni-technics?

We’ve been here before. Politicians and the media are wildly enthused. The market, less so. Whilst there are financial levers the State can pull (and, to an extent, is already pulling), the latest loan regimes are effectively making ‘conventional’ higher education less attractive and less feasible for those from under-privileged backgrounds. And the insecurity of bite-sized funding, of a reduced percentage of full-time, three-year learners, could threaten the very integrity of those institutions at the forefront of delivering this agenda.

Twenty years ago, as the Chair of one of the two sector representative bodies, I had the privilege of a peripheral involvement in the 2003 White Paper, a far-sighted document which had a vision of four equal strands of excellence – Research, Knowledge Transfer, Learning and Teaching, and Widening Participation – and which sought to at least pump-prime each of those strands (Centres of Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CETLs) anyone?). But the level of resourcing and, especially, the inequity between strands, meant the flame doused before the decade departed. Speaking at a Conference for CETL staff at the Russell Hotel in 2008, I well remember a show of hands, foolishly having asked a room of two hundred how many were employed on permanent contracts. The answer?  Barely one score. And then came the financial crash. 

Stream three, a trickle becoming a torrent.  Online learning. Universities made great strides during the pandemic, but those strides were not as substantial as those made by global players in online communication. Universities have the intellectual capacity to drive online learning, but no single university has the investment capacity to do so. It is highly likely that 2030 will see global players, global brands, dominating the market. Universities will support their own students on their own courses, building on the work undertaken in the pandemic in an ‘as well as’ approach, and this will be integral to the sector’s delivery model. It is highly likely that universities with a global brand will become (junior?) partners with the global communicators, but it is a near-certainty that, if and when the requirement for face-to-face delivery is relaxed, much of the Lifelong Learning element of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement will be anchored in these cross-border megaliths.

So, just seven years hence, what will higher education look like?  We all have our own lens, and we should not under-estimate the importance of the living as well as the learning experience. There is likely to continue to be strong demand for the three-year, full-time, residential higher education experience we understand today, albeit with an ever-deepening mix of online and face-to-face learning, and with participants substantially drawn from Polar 5 and Polar 4 backgrounds. His Majesty’s Governments would like to see invigorated provision focussed on lifelong, home-based, employment-integrated higher education and will use an increasing range of levers to help realise this, though past failures indicate that there are difficult perceptual challenges that the State would have to overcome. And, finally, online learning will become increasingly significant, particularly in terms of bite-sized delivery, particularly at Levels 2 to 5, and increasingly delivered by third-party, largely US-based, corporations. Three streams, divided, crash down the hillside and the valley floor awaits.


  1. Colin McCaig says:

    … and some day a Minister will have to stand up in Parliament and say ‘Rejoice! The numbers of low income and BAME young people attending universities has successfully been reduced thanks to our brave new higher education policies’

  2. Gavin Dodsworth says:

    Thanks for this – most coherent best guess I’ve seen for a while. Appreciated

  3. John Brennan says:

    Great analysis! Brings back some memories. The American sociologist, Martin Trow, described the growth of higher education in the 20th century as the move from ‘elite’ to ‘mass’ to ‘universal’. But he always emphasised that the elite didn’t disappear when the mass arrived, and the elite and mass didn’t disappear when the universal arrived. Then I remember the British sociologist, Michael Young, whose book on ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’ predicted that 2033 would be the year of the British Revolution! Can’t wait!

  4. Sally Baily says:

    Good to hear your thoughts. I am interested in the idea of the uni-technic and the partnerships between universities and further education colleges. Citing just one example, universities have the money and the research power to come up with innovative solutions to environmental issues, but then we need to train technicians (e.g. plumbers, heating engineers, etc) with new technology to make it happen and ideally this could be technical college centred training. Is there any future strategy to tie HE and FE together in this way?

  5. John Cater says:

    Thanks Sally. I’m not sure universities have the money, the £9.25k fee being worth around £6.2k now and certain to fall further over the next two years. But, on the principle of what you suggest, a certain ‘yes’. The detail is, however, likely to be worked through at local and sub-regional partnership level. Best wishes, John

  6. Umar Khan says:

    Very interesting,

  7. Elaine Stretham says:

    Very interesting, thanks John. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on how the Admissions process might be affected by the trifurcation, as well as UCAS’ predicted million applicants by 2030?

  8. Dr. John Cater says:

    Thanks Elaine. Predicting the future seven years hence is fraught, but I only believe UCAS will see that figure if it takes into account the planned diversification into apprenticeships and other routes to higher level study. It is also worth noting that the UK eighteen year-old cohort (2012 and 2020 live births) drops from 813,000 in 2030 to below 682,000 in 2038. Depending on what happens with the Age Participation Rate and international recruitment, we could be in for a bumpy ride.

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