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Students and learning: Then and now

  • 11 August 2023
  • By Alex Bols and Graeme Wise
  • This blog was kindly authored for the HEPI 20th Anniversary Collection by Alex Bols, Deputy Chief Executive of GuildHE, and Graeme Wise, Head of Engagement and Knowledge Exchange at the University of London.
  • In August, we are running chapters from the Anniversary Collection as a series of blogs. This piece is the eighth chapter from that collection.

At the time of HEPI’s foundation in 2003, higher education was one of the key issues in politics and public policy. Student issues were at the centre of this. A new White Paper, The Future of Higher Education, was published by Charles Clarke, a Secretary of State who had himself once been a President of the National Union of Students (NUS). The future it envisaged was one in which students paid a larger share of the cost of higher education but would also gain more – in improved graduate earnings, greater quality of teaching and on-course experience and a stronger voice. It would also be a future in which there would be more students and they would be from more diverse backgrounds.

What students should expect from higher education, who gets to access it and what they should expect to pay, remain some of the central challenges and controversies facing us today. Yet today’s debate, about fundamentally the same issues, is radically different in its terms.

This story has coincided with personal journeys taken by us, the authors of this chapter. In 2003, we were early in our careers in the student movement, which laid the foundations for our own work in higher education policy and independent research, covering a range of topics in learning, teaching and student representation. Our reflections on how these matters have evolved cannot fail to be personal and, in the space available here, they must also be quite selective.

Disruption and discontent

The last twenty years have been a time of disruption and divergence. In 2003, political devolution within the UK was still in its infancy, but at that time approaches to student-related issues began to diverge significantly in terms of sector structures, student funding and initiatives used to drive change. This divergence has become much stronger over the years since, so much so that it is hardly possible to speak of a ‘UK system’ in higher education, at least in relation to learning and teaching.1 The global financial crisis in 2008/09 triggered a severe long-term squeeze in national budgets and presaged a funding settlement for higher education in which student fees were set at three times the level initially set under the Higher Education Act (2004). The UK’s departure from the European Union has both changed the nature of our offer and our obligations to students from the EU, has halved student recruitment from those countries (although the numbers remain much higher than they were in 2003) and has also reduced the mobility of UK students and made graduate careers in Europe at least more difficult to embark upon. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused major disruption to the learning of the vast majority of students in higher education and all those in earlier educational stages who will feed into the higher education system in the coming years.2

Technology has also created significant disruption and change. The last 20 years have seen the rise of the smartphone, while laptops have become ubiquitous, all connected to high-speed broadband and mobile networks. A few years prior to HEPI’s formation, the Dearing report of 1997 had envisaged a ‘Student Portable Computer’ (SPC), those being ‘paperback-sized “notebook” computers, capable of sending and receiving e-mail and accessing the Internet’ and foresaw the need for ‘adequate provision of network connection ports in institutions into which students can plug their SPCs’.3 Meanwhile, desktop computers might be needed at a ratio of up to one for every five students. This all seems rather charming now, but it aptly demonstrates how fortunate we are – had the COVID-19 pandemic occurred only 15 years earlier, it would have been quite impossible to make provision of any kind of distance learning of the sort that was achieved, reliant as it was on almost universal ownership of powerful laptops and especially on widespread institutional and domestic broadband. The potential of advanced blended learning approaches, already well developed in some institutions at the start of 2020, has now been kickstarted everywhere, but it remains to be seen whether this potential will be fully realised or if we will see a reversion over time to previous norms.4 At the same time, social networks and research tools facilitated through this technology allow students to communicate and study at enormous speed with hugely reduced boundaries and constraints – perhaps at the expense of simple luxuries such as space to make mistakes, of both an academic and social kind, and even just ‘the time to think’.

On top of all this, and perhaps because of many of these forces, we have seen the emergence of what has been termed a ‘culture war’, broad in scope but specific in relation to students. There is consternation about what students can do and say, and what people think they should do and say, and these normative judgements tend to apply equally to the activities of students in the present as well as to their life ambitions. If someone was born in 2003, they might by now be a young undergraduate, or may be considering the possibilities of higher education. Their childhood and young adulthood has been an experience of constant crisis and a dramatic shift in what we might simply call ‘the national mood’. The pandemic imposed severe constraints on young people’s freedom to explore the world and find their place in it. These factors cannot fail to have an impact on students’ perceptions of higher education, how they want to experience it and what they want to do with it. Twenty years ago, the focused turned to the student experience and a sharp debate about how far we should be concerned with value for money in higher education. This trend seemed then to become sharper still with every escalation in the fee level. Today the fee level is holding its station and the focus is turning again towards whether the sector still has the capacity to provide the fundamentals of quality and to meet core student needs.

Diversification and consolidation

Over the last 20 years, higher education participation has expanded tremendously and become more diverse in several important respects. The number of qualifications obtained overall increased from 595,640 in 2003/04 to 919,940 by 2021/22. This growth has been driven by a dramatic increase in postgraduate study, which has more than doubled in volume, underpinned by a stronger need for differentiation in the graduate labour market, an enormous range of course choices at this level and the introduction of public postgraduate student loans in 2016/17. Meanwhile, undergraduate numbers have grown by 28%, with iterative addition and diversification of available routes, including foundation degrees, foundation years, degree apprenticeships and accelerated degrees. Collectively, these paths have grown significantly in relative terms, albeit remaining in the minority of overall provision.

Over the same period, part-time higher education numbers collapsed, a casualty of rising fee levels alongside the ELQ (Equivalent or Lower Qualification) rule withdrawing state funding from students with previous qualifications at the same or lower level.

This expansion has seen policy drive ever more significant interventions to improve diversity. Initiatives such as Access Agreements, AimHigher and the Director for Fair Access have sought both to widen the backgrounds of those entering higher education and deepen the activities that universities undertake to widen their pool of applicants. This has increased the proportion of students from a whole range of groups that had previously been excluded from higher education, including students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, Black and Minority Ethnic students and disabled students, resulting in a higher education that is more representative of society as a whole. Yet there remains a gulf on many of these metrics between institutions with different levels of prestige and different standard entry requirements, with larger newer universities bringing in more students from diverse backgrounds. Across institutions of all kinds, recent years have seen growing concern over gaps in measured levels of attainment and in labour market outcomes. These are difficult areas to understand what is really going on, with multiple tools being tried, ranging from scrutiny of particular metrics (and sub-metrics for different groups) in the Teaching Excellence Framework to Learning Gain Pilots, with none of them quite providing a clear route towards positive change or guide for practice. The current regime is quite punitive in character, without holding out much promise for real progress, which feels like the wrong balance to strike.

The years ahead will involve considerable pressure on the higher education sector to meet rapidly increasing demand while maintaining quality and making progress on equality and diversity. This will be an increasingly tough landscape. Already student numbers have grown in many institutions so much that study space and learning resources are under huge pressure. In some places, student accommodation is full beyond bursting, with insecurity, the rush for rooms and rising rents adding to a wellbeing crisis. New technological possibilities and preferences can help to mitigate this – for example, library holdings become more available and shareable in the age of eBooks and digital journals, but can also exacerbate it – all canteens become computer labs when those ubiquitous laptops arrive.

Teaching and learning, student representation and power

Over the last 20 years, all governments have prioritised the need to improve teaching in universities, but the way in which they have sought to do it has been quite different. In retrospect, it is possible to identify three phases in the approaches to improve teaching. First, by funding research and enhancements in practice from 2003 to about 2011, which then shifted towards a focus on seeing students as consumers but within the established institutional structure until about 2016, and then a more definitive turn towards consumer power in a regulated market.

The 2003 White Paper heralded significant investment in teaching through the creation of the Centres of Excellence for Teaching and Learning, the development of the Professional Standards Framework and National Teaching Fellowship scheme, increasing the number of staff trained to teach, as well as bodies such as the Higher Education Academy (now Advance HE) supporting the professionalisation of teaching, researching approaches to teaching and better recognition of teaching in promotion criteria. Policy drivers have also been used to give students more power over their own experiences. This included the establishment of the National Student Survey to collect students’ views, and the chance to complain and seek redress about poor experiences through the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education. These developments have, by and large, stood the test of time.

We have also seen ever-increasing attention to better information for applicants and students to navigate the higher education sector through a wide range of tools including Programme Specifications, Key Information Sets, UniStats and DiscoverUni. Greater technological capabilities have also played their part here, especially in the realm of data aggregation and analysis, ranging from Longitudinal Educational Outcomes measures of employment and earnings at the national level to institutions’ own increased capabilities and usage of learning analytics at the local level. These developments undoubtedly tell us a lot more about the trajectories of students and graduates, through the learning experience and beyond, but also raise the inevitable risk that action is taken primarily to shift the metrics, which might not always be in the interests of the actual people who are represented in them.

The current phase of development has seen institutional change to a far greater extent, with the consumer power emphasis further mobilised through the creation of the Office for Students and the Teaching Excellence Framework, alongside greater attention and stronger guidance from the Competition and Markets Authority. In 2023, we will journey into truly uncharted territory, with a new iteration of the TEF with the potential to mark out providers as ‘requiring improvement’, and the Office for Students directly taking on the primary role in quality assurance processes for an indeterminate period and without clarity as to whether this is to become permanent.

The critical question is: has any of this truly empowered students? That is a complex question and impossible to answer here. But our general view is that when this question is answered either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ the answer tends to be asserted ideologically and is not well-rooted in evidence. It does not help that recent financial difficulties within the NUS have led to its policy function being severely diminished in scale or that the research base on higher education in the UK is quite thinly spread and policymakers are not connected well enough with researchers. In the access and participation area, we have a new ‘what works’ centre, Transforming Access and Student Outcomes (TASO), which has made a strong start. There may now be a case for the sector to establish a serious national research institute focused on students and learning in the UK – an agenda that would include a mix of teaching, resources, wellbeing, harnessing and managing new technology, and how to effectively build student agency at a time of considerable turbulence in policy and practice.

We are already seeing some of the trends that may impact over the next 20 years, and it would be prudent to assume that disruption to established practices is likely to continue and accelerate. Technology will play an increasing role in both enhancing existing learning and potentially changing it significantly through new methods of blended provision, alternative means of credential awarding and powerful artificial intelligence requiring new approaches to both curriculum and assessment. Global events will play their part too, and are hard to predict, although the realities of climate change and stark divisions in international relations are not in doubt. The culture wars will rumble on. New policy developments to improve support for flexible and lifelong learning are difficult to implement, but have never been more essential. We now live in a much more challenged and contentious world than we did in 2003. We will need an education system to match it.


  1. Nick Hillman, One for all or all four one? Does the UK still have a single higher education sector?, HEPI Report 129, April 2020 https://www.
  2. Rachel Hewitt, Students’ views on the impact of Coronavirus on their higher education experience in 2021, HEPI Policy Note 29, April 2021
  3. The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, Higher Education in the learning society: Main Report, 2017 http://www. html
  4. Jonathan Neves and Rose Stephenson,  Student Academic Experience Survey 2023, HEPI / Advance HE, June 2023 wp-content/uploads/2023/06/Student-Academic-Experience-Survey-2023.pdf

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