University is a significant investment, for individuals and for the state. The returns are also profound. Graduates fuel knowledge economies, and having a degree is typically associated with a lower likelihood of unemployment, higher wages and greater job satisfaction.
Nonetheless, any sector with the longevity and scale of the higher education system should be challenged to evolve and adapt. This is particularly true at a time when new technologies are transforming skills needs at an unprecedented pace.
However, the decision announced this week to cap student numbers on “low-quality courses” in England misses this point and distracts policymakers from the bigger picture. The policy will use data from the past to cap opportunity for the future. But what is really needed is the reverse – a better understanding of the future to inform education today.
Many have pointed out flaws in naming, shaming and capping courses with supposedly unacceptable drop-out rates and graduate outcomes. For a start, the Office for Students already possesses this power, so the announcement just amounts to encouragement for the power to be used. But entrenched inequalities mean that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to drop out of university and are less likely to secure the best-paying jobs. This means that, in practice, the type of course selected for a cap is more likely to be one with a high proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, punishing universities that push boundaries to widen social mobility.
The same is true for courses whose graduates typically choose to work in parts of the UK with lower wages, which the government is keen to “level up”. But England cannot level up if opportunity is levelled down. Even more contrary to political ambitions, number caps could potentially be inflicted on courses whose graduates are particularly entrepreneurial, who may take longer to see financial returns for their own businesses and ventures.
The proposals also ignore the non-monetary value that higher education often brings, as well as the many high-value graduates working on lower salaries but in fulfilling roles for the NHS or in the UK’s world leading creative industries and performing arts.
Policymakers have sought to mitigate some of these factors by generating an increasingly complex methodology for assessing “low value”. However, magnifying incomplete data on a very small pool courses is not what students or taxpayers in England need. The value that universities offer to individuals, the economy and public services hinges on universities understanding and adapting to expected future labour market needs – and this is becoming increasingly difficult to do.
The world remains in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, driven by disruptive and often unpredictable technological advancements. Employers, educational institutions and policymakers all know that this will impact future labour market needs, but, collectively, they lack a clear vision of what to expect and how to adapt.
The government understandably wants to maximise the return on investment into higher education, both for taxpayers and for individuals. However, it would make a much greater impact by leveraging all its labour market data and its immense convening power to help educational institutions understand and prepare for future labour market shifts. Universities should be viewed as trusted partners in this process.
University leaders and their staff care passionately about the national future and the employment outcomes of their students. UK universities are often praised for fronting the pack in the world rankings and hugely overperforming on research, but they do so while also quietly leading the way globally on the proportion of students completing their degree, according to figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This is an immense achievement given the scale and diversity of the UK sector, reflecting universities’ collective commitment not just to expand access to higher education but also to secure success.
Such success is essential to future economic prosperity. Important work is already happening at a local level, with coalitions of universities, colleges and employers working collaboratively to consider the future. What is really needed now is national leadership to prepare for significant changes to the future of work.