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Who Are Universities For? Re-making Higher Education’ by Tom Sperlinger, Josie McLellan and Richard Pettigrew

September 29, 2018

There are large swathes of the population who feel, like Cara did, that universities are not for them.

The poorest sectors of the population, indigenous groups and ethnic minorities participate at much lower rates than their peers. One in six Africans and Coloureds in South Africa attends higher education, compared with half of Whites (the terms given are those used in Unesco’s classification).

Only 1 per cent of the indigenous population in Mexico goes to university. In the UK, nearly three quarters of the richest 25- to 29-year-olds had completed four years of tertiary education in 2008-14, but only a third of the poorest.

While access to higher education has improved for women, gender equality in the system remains elusive; the proportion of women continues to decline at each stage of the system up to professorial level.

Around the world, about the same number of women study for an undergraduate degree as men, although women are a smaller proportion (44 per cent) of those studying at doctorate level, according to a recent report by Unesco. Meanwhile, in low income countries, only one third of 3.3 million undergraduates are women.

The UK system also remains remarkably unresponsive to the shape of individual lives and the ways that circumstances may interrupt someone’s education. Cara was returning to education in her 30s. But the routes to do so are increasingly limited.

There has been a 61 per cent drop in the number of part-time students in England since 2010, with women from less privileged backgrounds among those most affected. There is also substantial evidence that students from groups that have been routinely excluded from universities continue to feel like outsiders within some institutions.

In the UK, retention rates are lower for all ethnic groups (except students of Chinese and Indian ethnicity) compared with their White peers, and degree outcomes are dramatically different for Black students regardless of entry requirements for their degrees and of the qualifications they had gained beforehand.

The focus of public debates about higher education in the UK tend to be on a particular set of issues, including whether universities are too commercialised or too remote from the rest of society, and whether student fees have been a success or should be abolished.

Within universities themselves, many debates position the 1970s as a sort of golden era – when grants were available and there were no fees, access was widening through new universities, such as Sussex and East Anglia and the Open University, and government intervention in the system remained limited.

Today, universities are facing a crisis of public confidence both as institutions and as symbols of expertise. We need a much more radical rethink of the form and structure of the higher education system if this crisis is to be addressed.

Recent political events in the UK have powerfully demonstrated how divisive different worlds of experience can prove to be

In particular, we need a shift away from the norm of full-time study over three years at the age of 18. This model emerged in an era when the student population was dramatically smaller, and the nature of professional life was very different. A critical debate about whether it is still fit for purpose is long overdue.

Indeed, the decline in part-time study comes at a time when a fourth industrial revolution will create unprecedented demand on those already in work to retrain and acquire new skills. In this context of rapid technological and economic change, it makes little sense to concentrate all of an individual’s higher education into a brief period at the beginning of their lives.

A report by the World Economic Forum in 2017 notes that: “Over one in four adults surveyed in the OECD reported a mismatch between their current skills and the qualifications required for their jobs. Furthermore, approximately 35 per cent of the skills demanded for jobs across industries will change by 2020.”  (Are we talking universities here? Or polytechynics?)

The pace of change is likely to accelerate and to create extreme inequality between those with high-skilled and high-paid jobs and those in low-skilled professions. In other words, those without access to further and higher education will be left further behind economically.

What is more, those workers who have already exhausted their entitlement to three years of full-time study will be unable to retrain as and when their current skills are outpaced by technological change.

Some Cambridge University colleges have admitted no black students or have accepted as few as one a year between 2012 and 2016 (Rex)

What would a different model of universities look like and who would benefit?

Who are universities for? puts forward 33 new ideas for how universities in the UK might be organised. Here are 13:

1) A modular structure would replace degrees. The predominant existing degree structure would be abolished, with students instead taking modules and accumulating credits for each module towards a range of possible outcomes.

2) There would be no point of graduation. The new, modular structure would have radical implications for admissions, but would also mean abolishing the formal point of graduation. Instead, there would be an expectation that adults would continue to study across the course of their lives, if they so wished.

3) There would be full participation. There would be a goal of full participation in further and higher education among those over 18, but this would come in a variety of modes and forms. The distinction between HE and FE would ultimately dissolve.

4) Part-time study would be the norm. Most students would work part-time and school-leavers would be encouraged to consider working full-time between school and university or to work alongside their studies.

Stormzy recently announced a scholarship scheme to fund the tuition and maintenance costs of two black Cambridge University students per year in 2018 and 2019 (Scott Garfitt/REX/Shutterstock)

5) Access to initial study would be completely open. All those physically present in a country, including refugees and asylum seekers, would be able to access up to 60 credits of study (half of a first year and normally equivalent to about three modules) in further/higher education, without any prior qualifications being needed, and for free.

6) Access to specialist routes beyond initial study would be fairer. There would continue to be a limited number of specialist routes through subsequent study, for example where a particular route might be required for a profession. Entry to these routes would be on the basis of two of the following conditions: achievement in the prior 60 credits; achievement in a prior course of study; interview and/or written work set at the point of admission.

7) Admissions would treat state education as the norm. Where achievement in prior study is considered at the point of admission, there would be a standard offer – for example, for the 93 per cent of students attending state schools, or for those taking an access course – and then a higher offer for students attending a private school.

8) Initial study would be free for all. The first 60 credits of study would be free as well as open access. This entitlement would be for 60 successful credits and all learners would also be entitled to up to 40 unsuccessful credits, to allow for modules where an individual might (for example) opt not to take the assessment or fail on the first attempt. We estimate that this would cost approximately £5bn.

9) University teaching would be funded by a participatory education tax. The fees and loans system would be replaced with an all-age graduate tax, called a participatory education tax (PET). It would be paid by all past graduates and all those who, in future, accumulated more than 60 credits.

An individual would pay a slightly higher rate of tax after accumulating 240 credits of study (equivalent to two years of study). We estimate this would raise £2.6bn based on the current number of graduates in the UK, considerably more than the £1.8bn raised during 2015-16 by repayments through the student loans system. We estimate the PET tax would raise £18.4bn per year on the increased rates of participation we propose.

10) Half of PET revenue would be allocated centrally for strategic purposes. Of the funding provided via the PET tax, 50 per cent would be distributed through a national system, which would allow, for example, for the identification of strategic priorities across the sector, including in response to global challenges and research priorities emerging internationally.

We assume here that this would continue to be on a devolved basis, with England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales each maintaining a separate system for higher education (and, indeed, choosing whether or not to move to this model of funding).

11) Half of the PET revenue would be distributed in each region through a system of participatory budgeting. The other 50 per cent of funding raised would be distributed through an annual participatory budgeting process in each region, furthering the process of devolution.

This participatory budgeting process – modelled on examples such as the longstanding arrangements for civic participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre in Brazil – would begin with a series of public meetings or plenaries, in which the previous year would be reviewed and critiqued.

This would also allow for a wide range of opinions to be heard on what the priorities should be, in teaching and research, over the coming year.

12) Dedicated student housing would be integrated with other housing models. There would be options to move away from home for your studies, especially after 60 credits.

However, the model in which students live in segregated housing would be diluted by an emphasis on part-time study, with much more shared student and social housing and with opportunities for students to undertake paid or voluntary work within their residences, for example in shared accommodation with vulnerable young people or retirement housing.

This would build on imaginative models that are developing throughout the UK designed to create shared intergenerational living spaces.

Education has a vital democratic function, not least in providing spaces where individuals from dramatically different backgrounds can meet

13) Childcare would be central to all universities. The poet and critic Adrienne Rich’s proposals for childcare would be at the centre of all institutions: “Childcare would be available for all students, staff, and faculty, with additional places for community children, at a subsidised rate that would make it effectively open to all. This is an absolute necessary, though not sufficient, condition for the kinds of change we envision. Childcare would be of the highest quality.”

Adrienne Rich thought that real social change is likely to come from outside universities and that it is “probable” that “the unrecognised, unofficial university-without-walls … will prove a far more important agent in reshaping the foundations on which human life is now organised”. Cara’s poetry is a reminder of just how much creativity and invention happens outside universities.

Yet Rich herself conceded that: “The orthodox university is still a vital spot … if only because it is a place where people can find each other and begin to hear each other. (It is also a source of certain kinds of power)”.

Too often, widening access to universities is presented as an altruistic activity that universities do for philanthropic reasons. This produces a system in which lucky individuals are picked out of their own context and must conform to a set of institutional norms that are alien to them (often with painful results).

Once a mass higher education system is created, as it has been in the UK over the past 20 years, it can also lead to a deep schism in society between those inside and outside the system.

EP Thompson, himself an adult educator, once wrote: “Democracy will realise itself – if it does – in our whole society and our whole culture: and, for this to happen, the universities need the abrasion of different worlds of experience, in which ideas are brought to the test of life.”

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