Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The future of university education in the UK

Yesterday, from several quarters, I found myself listening to statistics, reports and predictions on the subject of university education in the UK (and a little about the global situation). I'm not a futurologist. In fact, my stomach twists into a knot when I am asked to make any predictions about the future of learning. However, I can't help wondering whether universities are going to start disappearing or being 're-imagined' pretty soon. I have provided links wherever I have them. Please feel free to follow those for further information.

First, some background.

Up to 1998, there were no tuition fees for first degrees in the UK. In 1998, universities were required to pay up to £1,000 per year for tuition. In 2004, that increased to £3,000 (in England - other fee structures apply elsewhere). In 2010 that trebled to £9,000 a year. From a personal perspective, this was right at the time my sons would be looking at starting a university education. Neither of them went that route, and one made the decision based on cost.

The average predicted debt on leaving university in England, for those who started in 2012 is over £59,000. Graduates 'only' have to start paying back their study debts once they start earning at least £21,000 per year. Outstanding debt will be written off after 30 years. 30 years! By this time, these people will be in their early fifties. My age. By which point in their lives most of them will also have wanted to have had a wedding (£15,000+), take out a mortgage (£30,000 deposit and  a mortgage of £120,000), buy cars, do some travelling and generally live their lives. They will have needed to look into educating their own children. Many of them may, in fact be grandparents by then. The thought of still having a study loan hanging over my head at this stage of my life is just beyond depressing.

61% of graduates find work within six months of leaving university, and will earn an average of £18,000-£24,000 in their first job. So there might not be a lot of time between graduation and the beginning of loan repayment for that group. What of the 39% who take longer? (rhetorical question)

Organisations are finding that graduates don't leave university with skills that can be applied on the job. This might be due to a disconnect between what academia considers important and current practice within the corporate world. Whatever the reason, large investments often need to be made into the development of graduates before they begin to play a useful part in the achievement of the organisation's strategic objectives.

Having paid a fortune for their university education, students are becoming more inclined to complain when their expectations aren't met. Universities are self-regulating, unlike schools. This, I learned yesterday, is a major issue for several graduates. There is no body they can go to, to escalate the situation when they are dissatisfied. And many of them are dissatisfied. More than 20,000 students complained to their universities in 2013. They have begun to see themselves as consumers and believe they have been sold a sub-standard product. According to a programme on BBC Radio 4 yesterday, students find that the reality of a module often doesn't match the description which formed the basis on which they chose it. They find that they are unable to enrol on the modules they want, and must accept less-preferred alternatives for the same price (you can't have this Porsche 911, but here is a Fiat Punto for the same price). One student's dissertation supervisor was unavailable to him for five months leading up to his submission date, and the poor grade he got for his dissertation pulled his overall degree down from a 2.1 to a 2.2. Students are finding that the degree they have paid so much for doesn't qualify them for anything in particular - one young lady I know has just left university with a degree in German and has discovered that it doesn't open any doors that weren't already open before she earned her degree.

When I was in my final year of school (a long time ago), the field of computing (IT wasn't a term yet) was exploding. It wasn't yet the time of the personal computer, but the computerisation of  organisations - both public and private - was rampant. In desperation, organisations approached schools. One day, some captains of local industry came into our  (higher grade) maths class and offered to test us all for the aptitude to work with computers. I declined, but that's another story. Those who showed aptitude were offered jobs straight out of school at decent starting salaries (more than my Mom was earning at the time) and the opportunity to gain a qualification on the job.

Might we be seeing a return to that?

We're certainly seeing an increase in apprenticeship programmes. Not just in number, but in disciplines. In my office alone, we have three apprentices: one in admin, one in HR and one in Finance.

Considering the cost of training up their graduates anyway, and they higher salary they can command. Organisations may start recruiting straight from school. Offering young people the opportunity to earn-while-you-learn and to obtain accredited qualifications on a personal portfolio basis which can eventually build up to the equivalent of a degree... and beyond.

Will universities become irrelevant and even disappear? Will they begin to partner with organisations and run programmes that meet the needs of the organisations, with a changed accreditation model?

I can see this approach being more feasible in some fields than others - the corporate world is one such example. Neuro-surgery, maybe not so much. But maybe over time, models can be developed for the most unexpected fields to be able to move to a learn-on-the-job approach.

I will be watching with interest.

To close, though - it is my observation that the recruitment industry is lagging behind. They're a little too wedded to the 'piece of paper' as an easy way to identify suitable candidates. The current situation must surely be a strong motivation for finding a different way. But perhaps that is a post for another day.


V Yonkers said...

In the US, the unions used to train workers. University was not a place for job training, but rather a place for intellectual development. Vocational schools also were used to develop workers. One of the fallouts of the dismantling of unions and the vocational schools was the transfer of training costs to companies. In the 2000's, for profit "universities" began to pop up to fill the void and after the recession, companies began to cut training and there was pressure from policy makers and the press to "find trained workers", encouraging displaced workers to be retrained.

Part of the problem is the shift (as you noted in your post) in the purpose of education. Unlike Europe where university education has had a strong research connection, universities in the US was more the conceptual/intellectual development of leaders in a discipline/society. This also changed in the 1990s as there was a push for universities to do more research for businesses. Suddenly, instructors had to have PhDs and conduct research, often under the direction of large corporations.

Not only will university education have to be reinvisioned, but it's role in society and even the economy itself will need to be restructured.

JohnIScream said...

Here's an interesting insight that adds to the debate.

The upsycho said...

@V Yonkers How nice to be having blogversations with you again - it has been too long (and that's my fault). Yes, I suspect we need to have another long hard look at what the point is of each of the various types/avenues of learning.

@John Thanks for sharing that here as well as on FB. It's an encouraging read, but I'm not sure the recruitment industry makes a reality of what it says. At least not in the UK. I'm too far removed from the SA employment market to be able assess its veracity there.