Policy

How Will Students Live and Learn in the Future? #HEFutures

Last week, I attended the launch of “Living and Learning in 2034” [PDF] about the future of higher education. I was part of the project team, so I didn’t want to miss the event!

The report looks at how the student experience could change in coming years and considers the future wants and needs of students under a number of scenarios.

Visions of the future. Not quite like this... (photo by seemann)

Visions of the future. Not quite like this… (photo by seemann)

There was loads of great discussion on the night, including a great question and answer session that you can see highlights from below.

Student Living

Mark Allan, Chief Executive of UNITE Group, kicked off the evening by explaining why student living is at the heart of HE. Why not simply the student, as the government’s 2011 White Paper suggested? Because the experience is broad and all-embracing. Allan said that it’s important to try to understand and interpret future student interests, especially since students are not all the same.

While there is a current trend of seeing university as a necessity for employability and future success, that doesn’t mean everyone looks to higher education in this way. It also doesn’t mean the future will play out this way. However, this document does recognise current trends coming into play and uses them as a base (ten key trends are described in the report).

Study Patterns and Ethos

Paul Harris, Group Strategy and Commercial Director at UNITE, then talked about the prospect of new stakeholders making a huge impact on the higher education sector in coming years. It is not clear where that will take matters, he explained, because there are already fundamental uncertainties that will make an impact on HE futures.

He also questioned whether shorter and more intensive study patterns were on the horizon. Three year degrees may be the norm now, but shifting needs may speed development of 18-month and two-year courses.

Harris concluded with a strong point on ethos. While general attitudes within society are not always the most obvious consideration, they are a key issue that can make a huge impact, both nationally and globally.

We respond to each other and are aware of opinions that are forming. As such, a local economy could be booming or busting, but the final say on how that is perceived could be down to how the public react and respond to the circumstances. Even a bleak economic outlook can be played positively, so it would be wrong to ignore the ethos in society.

Ruled by Technology

One highlight from the event was one student’s dystopian vision of what could occur if technology pushed our minds (and our time) further away from our control. Does technology drive people or do people drive technology?

An abridged version of the student story can be found in the report. I told Cameron, the author, that I found his portrayal vivid and amusing. However, I continued, I’d stop laughing if his story became a reality.

Continue the Discussion

The end of the evening saw some brilliant questions from the floor. It helped the idea that the document is very much a living discussion. Among the questions and subsequent answers on the night were:

Might students in the future want to study in more than one place in the world?
Climate change may force people to stay closer to home in the future, forcing the hand on this one. But if travel continues to happen as it is, some students may prefer to get a range of experiences nationally and even around the globe. What we see as modular today may expand to single modules in several different institutions, but all part of a particular qualification.

Which scenario is currently most likely to play out?
We have no reliable crystal ball. Even as the report was being researched, opinions on the most likely scenario seemed to be changing. In addition, there’s nothing to say that different parts of the country could see different scenarios based on local circumstances.

These scenarios each impact attitudes to education and lifelong learning. Will universities plot out possibilities based on each scenario?
The hope is that the conversation will continue and expand. We must be prepared for many outcomes and it would not be sensible to assume a single course, no matter how obvious it appears to someone. Ignoring possible risks is a risk in itself.

Students discussing accommodation on TheStudentRoom focus very much on value for money and location. How will this change in the future, if at all?
If environment can bring more success, value will be drawn out and noticed. Success means different things and that can be drawn out from a person’s environment. That hasn’t been cracked yet in this country and there are many opportunities.
With £9k fees, students are now looking much more closely at what type of experience they want. Is it employer based, international, lifelong and learning focused, or something deliberately unique to a person? Universities in the United States are focusing on the student experience a great deal at the moment and some pointers could be taken from there. However, with spiralling costs, it is important to also be careful.

Your Thoughts?

A blog has been set up for the report, which will feature more ideas and content, over at hefutures.wordpress.com. There is already a graphic showcasing four of the possible students of the future.

What is your vision of the future? Leave a comment here or tweet your thoughts with the hashtag #HEFutures.

UCAS Statistics and Looking Cautiously Ahead

UCAS has released statistics for the number of university applicants so far this year. The numbers for the November comparison point show a 4% drop in UK applicants compared to last year. Applicant totals so far are closer to 2010 figures.

However, the 2010 figures for UK applicants increased by 340% between the November comparison point and the January deadline. Compare that with a 300% increase in 2011, 250% in 2012, and 300% in 2013. As we are regularly reminded, information provided in the interim should not suggest any specific course of events. Early figures of this type rarely provide an idea of the final outcome.

We can't see the future, but that doesn't mean we should wait until it's happened.

We can’t see the future, but that doesn’t mean we should wait until it’s happened.

Chief executive of Universities UK, Nicola Dandridge, explained that direct comparisons cannot be made as this year’s figures have been taken on a different date. Dandridge also recognised that applicants are increasingly using the whole time available up to the January deadline, rather than applying straight away.

So while nothing is set in stone, these statistics offer us a guide to possible scenarios that could play out.

Is this year’s drop partially down to potential applicants (and their parents, carers, etc.) giving greater consideration to their decisions from the outset? And will their caution result in a big surge toward the end or a clear dip?

Much of this depends not so much on tuition fee worries, but on viable and comparable alternatives to higher education. I don’t feel we have yet reached a point where large numbers of school leavers are realistically considering many different routes. New ideas are brewing, but university is still a big driver and still seen by many as ‘what you do’. How long will this attitude last?

The 2011 White Paper said it was time for students to vote with their feet:

We want a diverse, competitive system that can offer different types of higher education so that students can choose freely between a wide range of providers.” – p.47, Students at the Heart of the System, 2011.

It assumes that people will choose the best university for them. But what if people instead choose no university at all?

The thing about feet is that there’s more than one way to vote with them.

[Update: Nick Entwistle pointed out that the 4% drop is roughly in line with population figures for 18 year olds. As numbers in that demographic are currently on a decline, that makes sense. It's another important factor to consider and I forgot to mention that, so thanks Nick!]

1994 Group, Natural End Points, and Ongoing Plots

The 1994 Group of universities has today announced that it has come to a “natural end point“. But the end of this plot leaves many others wide open.

What will come of other mission groups? And for the universities previously under the 1994 Group umbrella, how will they choose to respond?

Dead end (photo by Scott Ableman)

Dead end (photo by Scott Ableman) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Mission groups generally set to put some kind of vocal pressure on the government and other policy shapers/makers when important issues are under discussion, or desperately need it. For that reason, I don’t think they’ll disappear any time soon. Uncertainty about the future will keep them going if nothing else will. Without wider representative voices, institutions would be in a much weaker position.

After the 1994 Group announcement, two tweets from Times Higher Education staff made interesting points:

Will the Russell Group become the ‘last one standing’? If so, what will that mean for the group and for higher education as a whole? If not, will other mission groups feel the need to alter their brand image?

With 24 universities currently in the Russell Group, I’ve mentioned before that it’s close to Michael Arthur’s comments on 25-30 institutions that should get the lion’s share of research funding.

Arthur’s comments suggest the possibility that we won’t see many more universities move over to the Russell Group.

No matter how large the membership becomes, if the group became the only one to remain, it would be all too easy to see the sector as two-tier:

1. An elite level of institutions in a powerful and vocal position;
2. All the rest.

That might be simplistic, but the danger is there. When I wrote a chapter for the Pearson book, Blue Skies, I made the following points:

“As a diverse community, we cannot all face the same direction, but we should aim to work as a collective nonetheless.”

and

“HE should benefit society as a whole. To do this, focus must rest more on achievement, and less on competition.”

The Board of the 1994 Group acknowledged this. They stated that “the sector is stronger when it works together”.

Sadly, the current system in HE, especially regarding fees, means that competition is only set to grow. How do you deal with collaborative representation then? Represent everyone and you represent no one.

It was less than a month ago when the Russell Group was being represented in the media, after calls for an increase or removal of the tuition fees cap. Does this favour all universities outside the Russell Group remit? Is it reasonable to focus on one group when it may only represent one aspect of the higher education landscape?

As Marie-Elisabeth Deroche-Miles has predicted, we could see greater competition, leading to more outspoken representatives.

From this perspective, mission groups on the whole could seek to toughen up, rather than close down.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be changes in terms of vision and/or membership. It may be a necessary development. So despite today’s news, the end of the 1994 Group isn’t a definitive sign that mission groups have had their day. It is more a sign of an unsettling under way. Where it will take us, we cannot yet tell.

As Phil Baty tweeted, many members of the 1994 Group had been strong players. This strength is what led a number of institutions to move to the Russell Group last year. If those universities believed mission groups no longer mattered, they would have simply left the 1994 Group, rather than move elsewhere.

Under the current system, the collaborations do matter. They help communicate the big ideas, outline the future visions, and point out oversights that make an impact on a wide scale.

No matter what scale you take representation, you will see many flaws as well as strengths. That doesn’t mean we should give up.

As my Blue Skies piece said, contradiction is (and always will be) higher education’s great strength. The community must work together, despite differences. Communities within that community must make their case heard. It would be a mistake to end up with one community in a dominant position and another community fighting for the scraps. That won’t be in the interests of society, since there is so much investment and involvement. Such an obvious two-tier setup would change opinions way beyond the universities.

Whether the end of the 1994 Group came as a shock or as an inevitable result of recent events, it marks the end of a chapter, but hardly the end of the book. The “natural end point” for the 1994 Group leaves enough characters remaining and many unanswered questions. Where will the plot turn next?

Caution. Which way to turn? (photo by tm-tm) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Caution. Which way to turn? (photo by tm-tm) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Definitions, Markets, and Moving Beyond the ‘University’

Some concepts are so huge that they can end up meaning little in isolation. Terms like ‘the student’ and ‘the university’ are a good example. That’s why we’re unlikely to see these terms disappear.

But might we see them in a very different light as time goes on? How definitions change is up to all of us. What do you see going beyond the university?

If you’re stuck for ideas, check out what Richard Hall has to say about moving beyond the university. Take a look at Ronald Barnett’s book, “Being A University“. Read the Times Higher Education piece on a cooperative university in Spain. There’s plenty to chew over and surely much more to come.

What lies beyond?

What lies beyond?

The university as it currently is may not be what everyone wants to keep alive. For some, it emulates the market too much. For others, not enough. Whatever your view, much concern rests in the ability to see universities survive in a meaningful way.

I doubt the idea of the university will simply be replaced with a form of learning and development that is not at all based in higher education. But don’t rule out drastic alterations on many other levels, especially if limited views are applied to complex matters. We’re still in danger that use of the term ‘university’ could be relaxed.

This comes at a time when market terms and analogies are being thrust upon higher education. And when reality proves rather different to what was initially envisaged, the sector continues to undergo tweaking. Just consider the clearing and adjustment process over the last couple of years, as well as moves such as Birmingham’s choice to award unconditional offers to 1,000 applicants.

Despite increasing marketisation of HE, how much of a market is there? Some desire it more than others. If we continue to head in this direction, will aspects of marketisation and customer relations become ever more interchangeable? Will students and teachers “dissolve the symbolic power of the University into the actual, existing reality of protest, in order to engage with this process of transformation”? Will we remain in a confusing soup, or is something more definitive around the corner? What will happen?

Students don’t have an easy choice to transfer to another university or get their money back for a disappointing or inappropriate course. Giving students the label ‘consumer’ is not helpful. Jim Dickinson says that students should not be labelled as if they can only be ‘one of two types’. Learner or consumer? Why not both? Why not anything else? A consumer is not the opposite of a learner, so why set arguments up as an either/or?

I guess it’s in part because simplifications like this are easy to digest and discuss. But the devil, as ever, is in the detail. Limited views are great for soundbites, less useful for policy.

Distinctions are required otherwise the ‘student’ is erroneously deemed two-dimensional. Speaking of which, how distinct is a university?

Maxxim Consulting refers to four ‘distinct groups’ of HEIs with a little overlap and many differences. To apply a blanket market treatment to them is, therefore, unhelpful. The question is, can institutions enhance themselves and develop enough in distinctive attributes under current frameworks? Anything is possible to an extent, but that doesn’t mean they can do ‘enough’. That’s the key word in my view. Slightly different isn’t distinctive enough. Neither is it necessarily there for the benefit of the students they serve.

The final paragraph of the Maxxim Consulting report makes an interesting point:

“The student leadership also has a key part to play as the all-important ‘voice of the consumer’.”

Back to that word ‘consumer’. It wasn’t going to take long for the term to crop up again. If universities are struggling to find a distinctive edge, why should the student be allowed?

In terms of higher education, everyone should be distinct, everything should be distinct, and HE should fuel a thriving to be distinct. Not unique in every possible way, but distinguishable.

This is where the market model is assumed to help achieve great things. Yet a report by CFE and Edge Hill University (“The Uses and Impact of HEFCE Funding for Widening Participation“) has this to say:

“The perceived ‘marketisation’ of HE and increased competition between institutions could mitigate against the prioritisation of collaborative activities and/or activities that derive benefits for the wider sector and policy objectives, such as early interventions in schools.” – p.5

Less collaboration, less benefit to policy, less early years intervention… Ouch.

Moving beyond the university is anything but simple. For every decision in the name of strident consumer action and market forces, there are implications behind the scenes that can contradict all the good intentions. That’s if you assume all intentions to be good. And thus starts yet another debate.

Though it is hard to frame a simple definition to the term ‘university’, this must be attempted before anyone can move beyond it. Stefan Collini tackled this in his book, “What Are Universities For?

Markets require an element of understanding or appreciation by consumers (whoever they are in each case) in order to allow the market to continue operating. Without a market, there is no market, naturally. With this in mind, Collini makes a good point regarding the wider concept of the university:

“Part of the problem may be that while universities are spectacularly good at producing new forms of understanding, they are not always very good at explaining what they are doing when they do this.” – p.89

In addition, Collini does not see a genuine market:

“…the so-called ‘market’ is in practice a rigged framework (benevolently rigged, for the most part) which is periodically adjusted if there is expression of one or another form of discontent with existing provision.” – p.105

There seems no easy way to untangle this. There is no start point or end point. Without a solid presence, it is hard to noticably move beyond anything.

One way to move beyond may be by stealth. Martin McQuillan explains, using Collini’s book once more:

“As [Collini] points out the accelerated growth and complexity of higher education in the UK means that there is no point in its history from the mid-nineteenth century onwards that can be reasonably described as the normal state of things.¬† He is not in favour of a fixed idea of what a university is but rather recognises the importance of a rainbow sector that is in turn sensitive to the needs of local communities and the nation state that funds it.”

All of this suggests that we, both as individuals and collectives, can work to bring our ideas and ideals of the university closer to a reality. In recognising this ‘rainbow sector’, diversity and distinctiveness should be championed as a way forward to benefit local, national and international viewpoints.

We still don’t have a clear explanation how to achieve this. But diversity promotes more than one answer. The ‘university’ and the ‘student’ are concepts without a single definition. Which definitions do you wish to move beyond, which do you wish to change within, and which do you wish to keep as is?

Welcome to the multitude.