24 Apr 2019
Modern universities are the most diverse part of the UK’s higher education sector. Our students bring a rich mix of identities and abilities, and come predominantly from areas of the country with lower rates of participation in higher education. Most adult learners study at our institutions. We are an engine of social mobility, not just for young people but for everyone.
Our inclusiveness brings with it the challenge of teaching students who often did not reach their full potential at school or college but who have an immense amount to offer with the right support. This is not just about great teaching but making sure that we do everything we can to help with the financial challenges and sometimes struggles with mental health that many of our students face as they juggle the demands of study, often long commutes and frequently part-time work and caring responsibilities.
The disadvantages our students and their families commonly cope with are reflected in the ways our institutions are often measured and assessed, such as league table rankings biased towards older, highly selective and research-intensive universities, or the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework with its crude metrics and cliff-edge medal categories of bronze, silver and gold.
This is not to deny that our universities need to keep improving, nor special pleading for our mission. You only need look at our strategies and targets to see the demanding goals that our boards set for us (and which are often much more relevant to the needs and success of our students than the voluminous regulatory and statistical returns now expected of the sector). But it is to argue that we have a higher education sector still differentiated in many people’s minds by prejudices such as old is better than new and selecting by prior attainment is a better way of assuring the quality of education than expecting learning gain across a range of abilities from high quality teaching.
Modern universities are where some of the most innovative teaching and learning is taking place in the sector, especially moving away from a focus on the subject to a focus on the problems we want our students and graduates to be able to solve. This means less emphasis on transmitting content and more emphasis on developing and practising skills: above all the skill of ‘learnability’ and equipping our graduates to be lifelong learners in workplaces where the pace of technological change will demand frequent reskilling.
At Middlesex, we are remodelling our teaching spaces to enable active and technology-enriched learning, keeping our library open 24/7, providing a free e-book to support every module, working to ensure our research helps our students learn and achieve, and developing new course and assessment designs that require our students to demonstrate their skills. We have a long record of enabling work-based learning with clients such as Worldpay, Royal Mail and BT, and are now using this to deliver hundreds of higher and degree apprenticeships. We are also bringing the modern workplace to the university, such as our cutting-edge Festo Cyber Factory for training tomorrow’s design engineers, and we are preparing our students for the demands of real-world practice using virtual reality technologies, such as simulating child birth scenarios with student midwives, ensuring they have a much wider range of experience than ever before.
Modern universities have opened up these opportunities to more and more people, and we have spread wealth by doing that. Yet we are sometimes criticised for our success, with claims that too many young people are going to university. This, though, always seems to be about other people’s children. While surveys show that over half of the public think there should not be any further expansion of higher education, when asked about their own children the answer from almost everyone is that they are likely to go to university. That would need the number of places to more than double. Heading that way would be a good thing. The evidence is that rather than those who did best at school - overwhelmingly from better-off families – having most to gain from higher education, it is young people from low income families who have most to gain from the higher future earnings that a degree generally brings compared to their peers who do not go to university.
The UK’s standard full-time degree has been a huge international success and continues to be so. But there is merit in the argument that higher education is too dominated by this model and that some students may be better served by higher apprenticeships and shorter level 4 and 5 qualifications. It is often assumed that this means fewer of the kinds of student we serve in modern universities studying for a degree, when it should mean all students considering these options. It is often similarly assumed that this means less students undertaking standard degrees, when future skills forecasts show we need more students qualifying at all levels of higher education from levels 4 to 8.
Providing appropriate and widely accessible information, advice and guidance to schools and colleges is essential in this context. All universities have an important role to play when engaging with schools and colleges to set out the full range of education and training pathways so that learners can find the right course for them, avoiding assumptions driven by parental backgrounds or gender stereotypes. At Middlesex our ‘Make Your Mark’ resources are exactly that, providing a ‘one stop shop’ of advice and information for 11 to 16-year olds, including further and higher education and apprenticeships. We also take our message into the community, such as the multi-award winning SMASHFest when our academics and students run events in neighbourhoods across London to engage young learners and their parents, who are often not graduates and are unfamiliar with universities and the opportunities they open up.
Modern universities are diverse because they are not highly selective, and their diversity is a rich resource. Not only is there growing evidence that a diverse student body helps all students learn more successfully, but our students’ diversity has a value. At Middlesex we are seeing increasing interest from employers wanting to diversify their workforces because it makes business sense. These are the most progressive companies and public services, such as publisher HarperCollins, high-tech manufacturer Siemens, the Ministry of Justice and the NHS. They still want graduates with the skills to make a difference, but they also want the new perspectives and new thinking that come with more diverse teams. This is where modern universities can really make their mark, driving productivity and social mobility as two sides of the same coin.
Professor Tim Blackman, Vice-Chancellor, Middlesex University London