Mary Curnock Cook, Council Member, Open University

As UCAS announce a record proportion of English and Scottish 18 year olds being accepted into university, we look at claims by Mary Curnock Cook that it is time to disrupt the three-year residential degree, for the recent volume of opinion pieces produced by NCFE and the Campaign for Learning, 'The post-18 review of education and funding: a review of a lifetime' on the future of post-18 education:

Higher education in this country is dominated by the 18 year-old (and sometimes post gap-year 19 year-old) school and college leavers beating the well-trodden path to university, usually away from home and involving expensive accommodation and living costs in addition to the current headline tuition fee of £9,250.

There is an assumption that this model is good for students and it is therefore a headline policy area that is funded, vigorously debated (often election critical), and assumed to be ‘a good thing’.

This model also allows the higher education sector to plan and run its organisations based on an assumption that over 40% of school leavers will progress to university (at age 18 or 19), albeit these days in a competitive market to recruit students.

The most radical disruption to this system proposed by government thus far is the two-year or ‘accelerated’ degree.

This suggestion was mostly treated with disdain by the traditional universities, keen to preserve their whole-organisation design around the three-year model.

Mostly invisible in the post-18 space is the 37% of all full-time undergraduate students who are over 21 or ‘mature’.

And totally invisible it seems are the 290,000 part-time undergraduate students, likely to be predominantly working full or part-time alongside their studies and currently losing out because of the funding model.

The review of Post-18 Education and Funding presents an opportunity for the government to introduce some real incentives to offer ‘competition and choice’ for students, using the funding mechanism as a lever.

If it is desirable to disrupt the dominance of the school/college leaver model for higher education, students will need to feel confident about alternative models.

Funding by credit (in suitably sized blocks) would help. Credit based funding and creating a market in transferable credits for students could spawn some interesting models.

Why not go to university for a year after school or college, then step into university-supported work placements for a year or two, and pick up the final credit to achieve the full degree over a period of several years thereafter?

A five or even ten-year degree model might sound like a nightmare to some, but conceptually could allow students much more flexibility in what they learn, when they learn it and how they apply it to their preferred work areas.

HE funding is, after all, predicated on a student’s ability to use their learning to enhance their earning power.

Credit based funding would help reverse the drastic decline of part-time study, experienced most painfully by universities like the Open University and Birkbeck.

Mature students want and need more flexibility and more might be willing to dip a hesitant toe in the higher education water if they could accumulate credit at their own pace, rather than committing to a whole degree on a fixed timetable.

Funding through credit accumulation should also support a healthy return to Level 4 and Level 5 qualifications, valuable as stand-alone qualifications, but also as rungs in a ladder towards a full degree for those who want or need it.

There is increasing evidence that many 18-year olds, perhaps sleepwalking into what they see as the required progression to university, regret their course choices.

Credit based funding would help those who want to switch courses or universities, or simply to step off the treadmill into work for a few years before deciding what higher level learning would best support their ambitions.

More radical still would be to incentivise later participation in higher education.

Making tuition fee support or repayment terms more generous to older learners would surely drive HE providers to design part-time provision more suited to a mature, working student body. Financial support for employers to support their staff to undertake degree level learning would be helpful too.

Salary sacrifice, tax incentives and a generous approach to study leave would help more workers to engage with higher education, especially those whose learning needs do not fall neatly into an apprenticeship framework, or those who might want to reskill to move to different work opportunities.

Given that the income-contingent loan funding model is predicated on a graduate’s ability to earn a graduate premium through their career, it is anomalous that universities are not required to deliver more work and career related learning as part of their degree offer.

I would be amongst the first to support the continuation of deep study in academic subjects, but often scratch my head that universities don’t deliver more focussed careers education.

Funding limitations for courses that don’t offer credit bearing, compulsory, assessed careers education might provide the right incentive.

A must do reform: Introduce a system of credit based funding

The government should introduce a system of credit based funding linked to credit accumulation and transfer.

This would make it easier for providers to design and deliver radically new and student-friendly models of higher education. Ideally, the same approach should also apply to adult further education as well as higher education at all levels.

Recommendation 1: Bake high quality careers education into all degrees

All higher education institutes - universities, FE colleges and alternative providers - should bake high quality careers education into all degrees. If you want graduates to help pay for their higher education through the graduate salary premium, then insist that HE providers deliver focussed careers curriculum that is credit bearing, compulsory and assessed.

Recommendation 2 Extend financial incentives to older students

To help break the cycle of students sleepwalking into sometimes poor choices of higher education directly after school and college, the government should make tuition fee support and repayment terms more generous to older learners.

Recommendation 3 Encourage employers to support older students

Consideration should be given to encouraging employers to support older students to participate in higher education through salary sacrifice, tax incentives and a generous approach to study leave. These employer focussed incentives would help adult workers who do not fit neatly into an apprenticeship framework engage in higher learning.

Mary Curnock Cook, Council Member, Open University

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