How can we ensure that higher education is central to economic renewal?

Fifty years ago, Lionel Robbins published his landmark report on higher education in Britain. Since then, the higher education system has been transformed beyond recognition and is facing a raft of new challenges: competition from overseas, new technology, the changing shape of our economy and labour market and, of course, an austere funding environment.

The IPPR Commission on the Future of Higher Education has this week published a report which identifies how we can continue to expand and reform higher education, protecting research and learning in our universities and colleges through a further phase of fiscal retrenchment, while ensuring that the sector is equipped to play a leading role in the economic and social renewal of Britain as the country enters the 2020s. 

In amongst its 23 recommendations are several relating to business and economic growth. It is now generally recognised that Britain needs to build a broader-based economy, less reliant on financial services and consumer debt, and more focused on investment and innovation.

Higher education institutions foster innovation, provide research, act as a magnet for growth, and improve skills and are an increasingly important part of the knowledge economy. In an otherwise bleak landscape, higher education stands out as a harbinger of future prosperity.

What were the key findings of the report?
  • Higher education opportunities should continue to expand. While resources are constrained in the next parliament, we should sustain the current proportion of 18–21-year-olds entering higher education until 2020, while focusing additional places on locally available, flexible and low-cost courses, aimed in particular at those who seek vocational-oriented learning.
  • Universities and further education colleges should be able to bid to provide new £5,000 ‘fee only’ degrees, focused on vocational learning and offered to local students who would be eligible for fee loans but not maintenance support.
  • The government should consider reforms to the approximately £5 billion that companies receive in training tax relief, with a view to better incentivising employers to invest in courses leading to accredited qualifications and continuing professional development, whether in further or higher education.
  • We must strengthen our systems of vocational provision and in particular our provision of advanced vocational learning through further education colleges. More of these institutions should be given the ability to award degrees and granted the renewed use of the title ‘polytechnic’.
  • We should continue to ring-fence and sustain in cash terms the science and research budget through the next spending review period until 2017/18. Because this implies a continued real-terms decline in funding, we argue that once the structural deficit in the public finances has been eradicated we should commit to a 10-year strategy of raising public investment in research each year above inflation.
  • We should reallocate approximately £1 billion a year that is mainly spent inefficiently on R&D tax incentives to instead set up a national network of Applied Research and Innovation Centres focused on boosting applied research in the strategic industries of the future and on revitalising regions with below-average growth.
More information

Read the IPPR report in full: A Critical Path: Securing the Future of Higher Education in England

[Picture credit: International Institute for Product and Service Innovation via Warwick University]