Shrinking UK universities to boost vocational skills is short-sighted


The writer is director of the Leverhulme Trust and a former professor of education at Cambridge

The government’s response to the Augar review of higher and further education was long-awaited and then, in February, overshadowed by events. Controversial elements — limiting university access to those with minimum grades and asking students to pay more of the costs — made a few headlines, but we still lack debate about the underlying aims of reform.

The UK demands a lot of post-compulsory education. We want it to ensure individuals reach their academic potential and live well. We want colleges and universities to enrich society and help “level up” economically. We want it to provide the knowledge and skills our economy needs. We want to remain at the forefront of global research. And we want to fund it in an equitable and sustainable manner.

Philip Augar’s expert panel did recognise these multiple demands, arguing for more investment in the half of young people who do not go to university, many of whom take vocational courses in further education colleges. He was right. Investing in FE is important, not just for fairness but also because we don’t have enough workers with higher level technical skills.

But this does not necessitate a smaller higher education system, which appears to be the direction of ministers’ thinking, borne out in declining real funding for both HE and FE. To make this political choice — how much we invest in post-18 education — we need to articulate all its benefits. This should include not just a crude return on investment for individual students but its value to society, importance for our research capability and impact on skills.

Parts of the university sector are highly successful internationally. The UK has 28 universities in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education global rankings, second only to the US. More than 600,000 international students enrolled in UK universities in 2021. Pre-pandemic, the sector had an annual export value of £16bn. In spite of this, the government’s proposals imply reduced investment, as student numbers are restricted and inflation erodes the value of the undergraduate fee. Our university participation is lower than many major competitor countries. Is a smaller HE sector a sensible aim for a country with strong universities?

We also fail to recognise that the HE and FE systems are intertwined. Our universities are expected to thrive and produce outstanding research. But they do not operate in a vacuum. The attractiveness of a university research career depends on the health of the sector. Many talented researchers in HE got there through FE. Quality research is carried out in a wide variety of universities. Last year, the Leverhulme Trust, which I lead, funded blue-sky research projects in more than 150 institutions. Breadth is a strength of the sector.

Ministers argue that we have too many students studying the wrong things; that expansion has led to oversupply of low-value degree subjects. Graduates earn more on average than non-graduates, yet this is not true for those from all courses. But does this, or the high proportion of tuition fee debt not repaid, imply wasted investment by student and state? Not always, even if we ignore the intrinsic value of a degree.

Some vital jobs pay low wages — like nursing — yet we need more people to do them. Our arts sector has benefits for tourism and technology, even though arts graduates are lower paid. The UK’s research capability relies on a healthy pipeline of talent across all subjects.

Clearly, we should not ignore poor job prospects for some graduates. We must tackle low-quality provision and ensure degrees have the breadth and depth to enable someone to both pursue the subject they love and acquire skills needed in the labour market. But we should not assume a smaller university sector with reduced investment is the answer to becoming a high-skilled economy with globally leading research.


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