The Learning Edifice: a changing Higher Education world

10 12 2010

Some time ago, I was interviewed by the think tank Policy Exchange as a part of one of their projects – in this case about the state of higher education and the emergence of private providers. With impeccable, ironic timing, the final report entitled Higher Education in the Age of Austerity has landed on my desk today – the day after the UK’s tuition fee vote has taken place.

 Policy Exchange has a clear free market perspective and researchers seem to go back and forth between Policy Exchange work and doing research for Conservative politicians. In the report, they advocate a level playing field for education. Both public and private providers, which meet stringent quality levels, should have equal access to student funding, should be measured using the same quality frameworks and should be inspected on a similar time frame (10 years is advocated). All universities should be turned from complex charitable structures into non-taxed limited companies so that mergers and acquisitions are possible. I think that is right.

 For my sins, I’ve also read the Lord Browne report in its entirety and have been watching the unfolding debate both in parliament and on the streets with interest. Both reports are about what is public and what is private from different perspectives: from an ownership view, in terms of public versus private benefit, and in terms of whether the public purse or the private purse should pay – and how much should be paid.

 It will be fascinating to see what the next decade will bring. I expect UG fees to reach the maximum of £9000 annually immediately at reputed institutions. I think that £9000 puts too much of the burden on the individual. As a consequence, I think loan default rates and avoidance will be much higher than the government is predicting. Because of this, I expect a boom in private provision, part-time studies and on-line education.

 The whole educational supply chain of learning, teaching, researching, evaluating and degree-granting will be challenged. I also think this is right. All organisations, universities included, must ask themselves if what they are doing makes sense – especially if it has been fundamentally unchanged for 700 years.