Ben Hughes is Vice Principal (Industry Engagement) at Pearson College London

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of transformation, it was the age of employability, it was the epoch of knowledge, it was the epoch of skills, it was the season of autonomy, it was the season of the Office for Students, it was the spring of widening participation, it was the winter of the graduate premium, young people had everything before them, they had nothing before them – all right, perhaps I’m being a little melodramatic. But reflecting on two very different conferences on the purpose of higher education in the last two weeks of April, it is hard not to be reminded of Dickens’s great opening lines.

“What would you say to someone who queried why they should go to university?” I asked the assembled great and good of higher education at Pearson College London a fortnight ago.

“The fundamental reason is that it transforms your life” answered former Minister for Universities and Science, Lord Willetts. “You’ll be able to dig more deeply into subjects you’re interested in than would be possible in almost any other environment; you will make a new set of friends, and also [the instrumental postscript] “It’s got a payback”.

“The number one reason is to do with being passionate about a particular subject. Having something you want to know more about” answered Dr. Joanna Williams, author of ‘Consuming Higher Education: Why Higher Learning Can’t Be Bought’. “You shouldn’t listen to those who know everything about the price of higher education and nothing whatsoever about the value.”

“It is the mark of a civilised society that it offers opportunity to everyone and not just the privileged few” suggested Carl Lygo, newly appointed Board member of the Office for Students. “For so many people it’s not about going to university; university is so much more than a physical place. [It’s about the] knowledge of a subject, the possibility of employment”.

“It’s great fun!” Roxanne Stockwell, Principal of Pearson College, continued. “Going to classes, learning new things, all the different extra-curricular activities that are available at universities. At work, you don’t have the autonomy that you have at university ever again”.

You could almost hear the faint echo of Newman when he noted, “What are we doing all through life but unlearning the world’s poetry and attaining its prose!”

“It’s about developing really robust cognitive skills” said former Director General of the Russell Group, Dr. Wendy Piatt. “The ability to think analytically and critically and cogently. To construct a persuasive logical argument. To problem-solve creatively.” But - “It’s not for everyone. Think very carefully about it and don’t just assume it’s the only path. There are other ways of fulfilling your ambition”.

Five very different answers from this famous five, each capturing different aspects of the purposes of a university education emphasised at different times and different places over the centuries.

Have we lost our way, during the period in which Dr. Piatt told us “the role of universities has expanded significantly”?

Wendy talked about university involvement in running schools and knowledge transfer, but she could also have added social engineering, given the now widely accepted role of universities in promoting social mobility; employability training (new in its current form, arguably always part of universities’ historic mission if you count training clergymen, doctors etc.); and the socialisation role of universities, characterised by Lord Willetts as what has become, “The western world’s main route to adulthood” (although Newman would have recognised character-formation as part of his idea of a university).

“Universities are vulnerable to having their core mission so stretched that they are in danger of not focusing on their real strengths,” warned Dr. Piatt.

But what is this ‘core mission’? The purpose of a university is “to be a body which communicates and certainly operates at the frontier of knowledge and understanding, and may well - though this is not necessary - be itself extending that knowledge” said Lord Willetts, commanding general assent from the panel.  

And what is it not? “The university is not a content supermarket!” argued Dr. Williams in response to Carl Lygo’s suggestion that, “There should be some type of digital disruption that enables content to come to people so that you’re not having to invest all that time travelling and going to particular places”.

Can, as Carl argued, Joanna’s university “learning experience, where you actually mix with your peers and debate with people struggling with similar intellectual issues” be achieved online? Answers on a postcard, or perhaps a blog post, please…

Universities should “back out” of the therapeutic role they have “accidentally” fallen into according to Dr. Williams, which sees some universities at examination time play host to “dogs, petting zoos and bubble wrap parties”.

As Roxanne Stockwell noted, “We’ve now got 45% of people going to university. If we really think that we need all of that just to support people getting into adulthood what about the other 55%?”

Everyone agreed on the importance of a diverse sector. But then of course, everybody always does. The one place you won’t find diversity is in the professed opinions of 21st century professionals discussing diversity. But as Dr. Piatt warned, “Whilst many people pay lip service to the importance of diversity many of the incentives push institutions to be very similar”.

Anyone familiar with the process of attaining degree awarding powers, or indeed anyone who has tried to break into the positional, highly conservative higher education marketplace in the UK would find it hard to disagree.

“Higher education should have four purposes:

  • education,
  • providing a ladder of opportunity to the disadvantaged,
  • skills and
  • employability”

said Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee, at the second of my April conferences to touch on this theme - this time in the context of degree apprenticeships - hosted by the University Alliance.

The change of gear was stark. Whilst the first of these purposes, “education”, marked a reassuring (if somewhat tautological) nod towards those wider purposes of HE discussed above, the definitive shift towards the instrumental was unmistakable.

“Perhaps we should regard universities as elite only if they are providing a real ladder of opportunity to the disadvantaged” he continued. “Maybe universities should only be seen as ‘the best’ when they lead their students to well-paid job destinations and reduce Britain’s skills deficit”.

Now even if one accepts the social mobility agenda, is “leading their students to well-paid job destinations” a necessary function of ‘the best’ universities?

Jobs attracting the highest levels of remuneration may not necessarily be the most socially useful. Indeed, some might argue there was an inverse correlation between the two. Should the best and brightest be directed from the classroom to the trading floor?

And anticipating where this might lead, should university admissions officers recruit those most likely to earn high salaries at the expense of those with less obvious future earning potential? And what effect is that likely to have on widening participation? Even targeting “reducing the skills gap” is not without its problems. It isn’t always obvious which skills emerge from which courses, let alone which skills might be necessary in twenty years’ time. And that’s if one accepts the argument on its own terms.

And what of diversity of mission? “One day I would like to see 50% of students at university enrolled on degree apprenticeships” continued Halfon.

Now, there is no bigger fan of degree apprenticeships than me. But I’m not so crazy about targets, or even aspirations that could so easily become targets.

I agreed with everything that was said about increasing awareness of degree apprenticeships, though I fear that will do little to improve take-up unless schools stop being graded on how many pupils they get into Russell Group universities.

But I’m not so sure about compelling all universities to offer them, as has been suggested elsewhere. For a start, they may have different missions (and the jury is out on whether degree apprenticeships promote social mobility).

Furthermore, I don’t believe that the prestige of degree apprenticeships is inextricably linked to the prestige of the institution offering them. Degree apprenticeships are just that – apprenticeships – whose prestige is currently drawn largely from the organisation offering them rather than the degree provider.

This is one reason why they are so revolutionary. The brand of an IBM or a L’Oreal can more than compete with the brand of the Russell Group. That is one reason why students are now turning down places at Russell Group universities to study degree apprenticeships with less well-known institutions.

Dragooning the Russell Group into offering degree apprenticeships under threat of withdrawal of public funding risks propping up the hierarchical structure of UK HE, not subverting it.    

“You don’t understand universities. They’re not just honeycombs of classrooms, where students are labelled this, that and the other, so they can get better jobs than their parents. It’s the world of research; the selfless pursuit of knowledge and sometimes of truth” explained an academic to a sceptical businessman in Robertson Davies’s 1981 novel ‘The Rebel Angels’. The ‘not just’ is as crucial now as it was then.

There are many different functions of higher education and of the institutions in which it is carried on. It will be a far, far better thing that we do, than we have ever done, if we seize this moment to ensure that they all retain a place in our higher education system.

Ben Hughes

This article is written in Ben's personal capacity and represents his own individual opinions rather than those of Pearson College London, where he is Vice Principal and a lecturer in Contract Law.               

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