Higher education in England – one sector or every university for itself?

Michele Sutton, AoC President

Michele Sutton, AoC President

By Michele Sutton, AoC President 

We have created a strange tertiary education system of sectors (secondary, work-based, further education (FE) and higher education (HE)) that effectively create significant barriers for students. These sectors are based around a very elitist understanding of education with quite different cultures and regulations that are not useful to the students and their progression. This needs to change.

We are losing the technical education route so fully understood by the Robbins committee in the early sixties, which argued for the need to “provide an alternative ladder of higher education for boys and girls who are unable to follow, or are unsuited to, a sixth form and university course”.

We need to accept that university education can be offered in various institutions and if you look around the world it always has; you need to go no further then Scotland, which has maintained a very successful higher technical education route with a much higher young participation rate.

All the elitist understandings around HE are actually socially and politically constructed, probably out-of-date and we need to develop a more contemporary approach to meet the needs of a globalised world with all early industrialising countries experiencing significant youth unemployment and increasing wage inequalities.

There is uncertainty about some of the newer entrants to the HE market. We have seen the ‘private university’ shambles in America and all parties wish to avoid that. It is not about who survives – small, large or merged – but that the students get the kind of diverse HE system they, the economy and society needs.

That means:

    • A continued part-time service
    • More flexible and accelerated provision
    • Both short-cycle and honours degrees
    • Accreditation of prior learning and accreditation of good quality employer-based education and training
    • The expansion of work-based professional and higher apprenticeships
    • Delivery in many different types of institutions, where the resource and the quality to deliver HE is clearly demonstrated

That is a diverse HE system – not how many institutions we have.

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