From education to employment

Post–18 review: what needs to be done

Nick Hillman, director of HEPI

What does higher education want from the government’s review of post-18 education and funding, launched in February? 

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has submitted ’10 Points-of-Note on fixing the broken parts of the system’ to the panel, based on its recent research. We caught up with Nick Hillman, director of HEPI, to get his view on the areas that really need to be tackled. 

The most important thing to say about the review is that it needs to focus on the parts of the system that are clearly broken, not on the parts that seem to work rather well.

Part-time students

I think the risk of the review is that it spends its time obsessing about the things that get the media or politicians of all parties going, such as fees for full-time students, rather than the things that don’t work. For full-time students the tripling of fees has worked as well as we hoped, if not better. But for part-time students it has been a hell of a lot worse.

That’s why our 10 points begin with part-time students. In the higher education space, it’s clear that the current funding model works least well for part-time students. It is not just affecting the Open University – there are big drop-offs across the board in England with part-time students.

Level four and five

The second area I would focus on would be the other 50%. This is a review of all post-18 education, so is the offer good enough for people who are not doing a full honours degree? If you look at OECD data, the area where our country falls behind, relative to our competitors, is in technical level skills – higher level skills but at a stage below a full honours degree. The problem is not that too many people are doing full honours degrees – we’re only in the middle of the OECD pack in terms of how many people go onto higher education.

The problem seems to me to be that there aren’t enough people emerging from schools ready for higher education. We need more people getting good level two and then level three qualifications – GCSEs and A Levels and equivalents – in order to rejuvenate levels four and five.

First-in-family applicants

As higher education expands, it continues to capture more first-in-family students: people who come from families where the mother or father have no experience of higher education. First-in-family students find it much harder to negotiate the system because they don’t have the same amount of informal advice.

There is a huge amount of information out there for people applying to university but it can be difficult to negotiate. If someone gives you a wealth of data but you know nothing about higher education, you don’t know what questions to ask of the data. We found shocking levels of ignorance among university applicants.

We need a combined effort – government, universities, schools, parents – to raise information levels and to provide the information in a form that young people find easy to deal with. Universities may need to do something more profound.

Unrealistic expectations

If young people have unrealistic expectations of what university is like there are three ways to solve that. One is you change their expectations. Another is to change what higher education is like so that it is closer to their expectations. The third way, which is my preferred option, is that you make the entry to university more of a process than a cliff edge.

Anthony Seldon, the vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, has pointed out that “nothing magical happens during those three months in the summer holidays between leaving school and joining university” and yet HEIs sometimes seem to expect students to arrive fully cognisant and knowledgeable about what higher education is like. I don’t think that’s reasonable.

As you get more students entering higher education with fewer standard university entrance qualifications, they sometimes need more information on study skills. Academics will often say that the key to university, and what makes it different to school, is independent learning. However, sixth formers, about to leave for university, tend to have a very different perception of the nature of independent learning to academics.

To address this, some universities in Australia have academics whose sole job is to teach first year students because they recognise that teaching first year students is a slightly different exercise to teaching second and third year students.

Going to university should not be a one off but something you dive into slowly and get the support you need, which might be around study skills, essay writing or navigating the enormous university library and the academic journals.

Mental health

Some support will be non-academic – how to access counselling services. One of the other shocking findings we highlight in our note is that nearly three quarters of those applying for university think that the university should contact their parents or guardians if they have a mental health episode. That is illegal because once you reach university you are normally 18 and therefore an adult.

Maturing is a gradual process, parents are taking alot more interest in their children’s higher education than they used to and I think we need a debate about disclosure.

Digital technology

There’s nothing more exciting than the power of technology to transform learning and teaching. Higher education has not yet been transformed by digital technology to the degree we may have expected, there’s a lot more scope for that to happen and Jisc are the people to show us how to do it.

It’s extremely hard to predict how technology is going to change things and it is crucial that the Augar review does not bind the hands of institutions or government in terms of the future use of technology. A further concern is around students’ personal data used in learning analytics and possible major data breaches that might disrupt student confidence in the potential of technology.

It’s profoundly important that we do everything we can to make sure that does not happen if we want to unlock the true benefits of technology.

Jisc’s recommendations

Driving up quality, increasing choice and ensuring value for money are at the heart of the government’s post-18 review. Jisc believes that technology can transform each of these areas so that students get an education that is digitally enabled, flexible and driven by their individual needs.

We have made recommendations in four key areas:

  • Introduce technology ‘fundamentals’ benchmarks
  • Support data-driven curriculum planning
  • Embed digital skills into all of post-18 education
  • Improve credit accumulation and transfer

Read more about our response and recommendations.

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