“Young people now graduate with an average debt of more than £50,000, which three-quarters of them will never pay off. So the vast majority will spend most of their working lives effectively paying an extra 9p off income tax for every pound they earn over £21,000…if we focus on how higher education is funded to the exclusion of two more fundamental questions, we’re missing a trick. Does our university system represent value for money for taxpayers and students? And is there a way to improve how we do undergraduate education in this country? The value for money question is critical in the light of the 28% increase in average per-student funding that universities received as a result of the fee cap tripling to £9,000 in 2012. Universities have long argued that the fact that Britain punches well above its weight among top global universities is evidence of the fantastic value for money they provide. But global rankings are overwhelmingly based on research, rather than the quality of undergraduate education.
Our lack of imagination means we just carry on doing things the way they’ve always been done. This means that more than 40% of young people now attend university, based on a selective, residential model whose fundamentals have changed remarkably little since the second world war when just 2% of the population attended only 21 universities. As Alison Wolf argued in Prospect last month, the UK is unique in the extent to which higher education almost exclusively takes place in universities.
Tim Blackman, vice-chancellor of Middlesex proposes a ‘comprehensive’ university system, in which far more students attend their local university. Blackman points out that academic selection is (rightly) shunned in our school system, because creaming off the ablest does nothing to improve their attainment, but depresses outcomes for everyone else. Yet we remain strangely breezy about academic selection in universities. A more comprehensive system could potentially deliver academic benefits by mixing lower- and higher-ability learners: but there would also be other important perks.
If significantly more students lived at home while studying, higher education would be significantly cheaper for the taxpayer. At the moment we actively incentivise young people to move across the country by offering higher maintenance loans if they choose to do so. It should be the other way round: we should drop the fallacy that it’s worth young people moving hundreds of miles to go to a university that may be very similar to their local one”.
Qualifi has pathways in to and through Higher Education include Adult Learner Loan recognised Vocationally Related Qualifications that can also act as a springboard into final year Honours Degree and Masters qualifications, that could that be the final aim of a student. The alternative VRQ and Work Based Pathways represent excellent value for money, can be studied locally and via a flexible blended learning approach, encourage Recognition of Prior Learning and enable participants to earn while they learn.