30 Sep 2019
Bill Rammell, Chair of the Association for Modern Universities, MillionPlus, and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, will tell a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference today (30 September) that in the interest of social justice and productivity, the UK must tap the potential of part-time and mature students.
Bill Rammell will say:
“[We must grow the resources for] our part-time and mature learners … Around 20 million of the UK’s working population do not have level 4 qualifications or above … this means mature learners represent a huge pool of untapped potential across the UK. In order to meet the challenges of tomorrow – be those relating to fairness, social justice, skills development, or productivity – it is crucial for the UK that everyone can access educational opportunities.”
Commending the recent decision on the re-introduction of the post-study work visa, Mr Rammell will also urge the government to go further and undertake a much-needed look at the visa application process. He will say:
“Our universities are huge draws internationally. It is enormously encouraging that the government is pushing an International Education Strategy, targeting more international students, and the recent announcements on post-study work are a genuine boost.
“However, this cannot be job done. [We need] further reform of practices at the Home Office and the Visa Agency to achieve the lofty ambitions we have set ourselves. We need to cut out duplication and bureaucracy, as well as unfair subjectivity in decision making that currently acts as a barrier to expanding our essential education exports. I know the Minister is keen to do more on this, and we are always ready to help.”
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The Age of Upheaval: what should post-18 education look like in 2030?
Conservative Conference 2019
Thank you all for coming here today, and to Conservative Home for hosting us. I’d like to start by thanking Zamzam and our NUS colleagues for their continued partnership at conference, we very much value this relationship, as do all our students.
I would also like to thank the Minister, Chris Skidmore MP, for being here today, and to welcome him back as Universities Minister. The sector was sad to see him leave his post earlier this year, so we are very glad he is back and here with us today, I know more than most what a fantastic job it can be and we look forward to future co-operation and dialogue in the months and years ahead.
Our discussion today centres on those months and years, throwing us forward a decade or so. What will post-18 education look like in 2030 is certainly an ambitious question, owing to the unpredictability of recent years and the changes to the sector, however, we feel it is an important question worth exploring.
After years of upheaval we need to start focusing on long-term, stable and sustainable planning. This must be based on an understanding of what we want our post-18 education offer to look like - and how we are going to get there.
When answering that question, we can’t ignore that the current government has to some extent attempted to answer that question. The highly anticipated Post-18 review of education and funding disappointingly did not deliver. The aspiration in the report to look across post-18 education and to seek fresh investment was commendable but some of the recommendations and assertions about higher education in general were wide of the mark and couched in terms of a trade-off between college and universities.
Too often the report misunderstood how the university sector operates, and so the recommendations were based on a distorted perspective. It appeared to pitch HE and FE against one another, which can only be unhealthy moving forward. I say we need a well-funded tertiary education sector as a whole – FE and HE together. The government has taken steps this month to provide further support for FE, and we assume on a basis that this boost is not predicated on less investment elsewhere.
Shifting money around within education only moves problems from one part of sector to the other and does not address the real issue of a real-terms reduction in investment in the education of our students.
In my opinion, and for many in the sector, we can do better than much of what Augar proposed, and indeed we should.
To the future then, and a post-Brexit world where the UK maintains its outward-looking ethos. Again, I know this is something the Minister believes in strongly but remaining open and interconnected today has never been more important, and that must be the case for the years to come if we are to thrive.
This must apply to all universities too, not just a chosen few. The strength of the UK HE sector is its diversity - this is an incredible success story for our country. Few countries can compete with the depth of expertise we possess in every part of the UK, and the benefits this brings are enormous.
For too long we had hyper-concentration of funding and access, and in 2030 it would be my sincere hope we have moved well away from this old-fashioned model and embraced the enormous potential for growth that exists, particularly at our modern universities.
Looking at the students now, which must always be the focus of what we do, there are many things that should be the case in ten years that would make things better.
Investment in HE per student is currently set at minimum of the £9,250 per year, although with rising inflation this is currently a real terms annual reduction. Full and necessary investment in each and every student, at all of our institutions, should be the minimum we can offer to them. This investment keeps the sector competitive internationally, it enables innovation, and it enables student success irrespective of their background. It means that students have access to world class facilities no matter what their university of choice.
The world changes and jobs change with it – according to the World Economic Forum many jobs in 2030 will be roles we haven’t even dreamed of yet. Restricting funding, especially at universities that are the most adaptable, forward thinking, technical and vocational, would be a real backwards step, and growing these resources must be high on the agenda.
This should also be the case for our part-time and mature learners. With changing jobs comes changing lifestyles, and an ever-greater departure from the idea of a job for life. Reskilling, upskilling, these will be critical for future success, and greater productivity. The current system, by any measure, has not done enough for these students, and this will be the issue we need to resolve over the next few years if we are to be ready, as a nation, for the future.
According to the most recent census data, around 20 million of the UK’s working population do not have level 4 qualifications or above.
To put that into perspective, the total number of 18-year-olds was just over three quarters of a million at the last count.
This means that mature learners represent a huge pool of untapped potential across the UK. In order to meet the challenges of tomorrow – be they those relating to fairness, social justice, skills development, or productivity – it is vital for the nation that everyone can access educational opportunities.
Another barrier we will need to overcome is a psychological one, that divides universities into good or bad, or subjects into valuable or worthless, or indeed at times into strictly academic, or purely technical or vocational. This is a risk that could be compounded by the government’s consultation proposal concerning higher technical education. MillionPlus has raised serious concerns that we risk reintroducing a new ‘binary divide’ to that which was abolished by the Conservatives in 1992, by pushing 18 year olds into a shorter and cheaper ‘technical’ route that may have little genuine educational content or prospects for progression for the learner to a higher level.
The focus of modern universities is just as it was before John Major’s decision to grant university title all those years ago – high quality work-focussed HE that equips students with the skills and knowledge to succeed in their career and as members of society.
Higher education has modernised since that point, but outdated views and opinions remain. Old orthodoxies still resound years after their sell-by date, and this drags us back when we need to be moving forward. Students today make informed choices about the courses that are right for them, and at each and every university there are courses that are world-class in every sense. That’s why the world is coming to British universities to study as international students.
Hierarchies and binary divides are always a temptation, but they are too often borne out of ignorance of the reality and a failure to understand the times. Where once people may have looked down on a video games course, this subject now props up an industry worth almost £6billion. These courses, and there are hundreds like them, are the backbone of growing industries all over the country, and business knows their value.
Similarly, our universities are huge draws internationally, for global talent. It is enormously encouraging that the government is pushing an International Education Strategy, targeting more international students, and the recent announcements on post-study work are a genuine boost, and I commend all those involved for achieving this.
However, this cannot be job done. If by 2030 we haven’t seen further reform of practices at the Home Office and the visa agency we will not have achieved the lofty ambitions we have set ourselves. We need them to cut out both duplication and bureaucracy as well as unfair subjectivity in decision making that acts as a barrier to expanding our essential education exports. I know the Minister is keen to do more on this, and we are always ready to help.
It’s a similar case for our EU students, and our EU collaboration on research post-Brexit. Clearly things will change but it’s not beyond our wit and imagination to craft a system that works in all of our interest and doesn’t just create a knee jerk reaction that does more harm to our universities and students. Again, we are always on hand to work with the government to make sure this is not the case.
Finally, in 2030, I hope we will have realised the potential of our students and our institutions as drivers of our regions and local economies. A strong university within a region leads to greater student outcomes, better student choice, a boost for local business and public services, investment in research and greater enterprise links with industry. It builds a network of connection for that town or city that stretches around the world. Institutions have done so much already to further this, but as the world gets smaller, and as the need to address all the areas of the country that feel left behind or feel they are not always the first in the queue for investment. It is our universities that stand best placed to facilitate and drive growth, and a wise government would have realised this by the time 2030 arrives.
It has been a time of upheaval, and of hard questions, but if the outcome is that we can create a long-term and sustainable system that works in the student interest and breaks down barriers to growth, then I believe we can look forward to the next ten years with a huge amount of confidence.
Anyone that works with students on a daily basis, as I do, knows there is lots to be positive about in the years to come, and it will be our job to make sure that politicians, and this government, sees that promise as well, and invests in all of our futures.
Notes to editors