Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Higher Ambitions - and what might it mean for us?

On 3rd November, Lord Mandelson launched "Higher Ambitions", a framework for higher education in the UK. The document is available at the BIS website, and announcement from the Lords is on the BBC democracy live site.

Pleasingly the document notes the success of HE in the UK, across a variety of institutions and their different missions: "The success of the last decade is not simply the achievements of the ancient institutions and the leading research centres. Many of the most encouraging developments have come in new and transformed institutions which are pursuing excellence in particular fields and building creative links to local communities and businesses around the country."

The framework covers:

  • Wider and fairer access to higher education
  • Equipping Britain’s workforce for a global economy
  • Research, innovation and knowledge exchange
  • The student experience of higher education
  • Engaging with our communities and the wider world
  • Supporting a world class system
Wider and fairer Access to HE

As well as statements regarding improved advice and encouragement to potential students, an increased used of contextual data in admissions processes and a review of widening access to the most selective universities, an interesting point for our faculty is a "priority to growing a diverse range of models of higher education. These include options such as part-time and workplace-based courses aimed particularly at mature students or those from nonconventional backgrounds". This is pleasing to see - much of the statement (and this was picked up in the questioning in the House of lords) was very much about "normal" 3 year degree programmes for 18-22 year olds.

Equipping Britain’s workforce for a global economy

This is the potentially contentious area - are universities just there to train workers for future jobs in the economy, or also to provide broader educational aims? Universities do both, and different universities do a greater or lesser part of each, depending on their individual goals.

Again, of interest to us as a faculty is the proposed enhanced support for STEM subjects, where skills gaps will be identified, and contestable funds provided by HEFCE, allowing funds to be diverted to courses that meet strategic skills shortage needs, and diverted from those institutions where courses don't meet required outcomes. An interesting debate that needs to be had here, is how do we attract students to those areas that are identified as being shortage areas - the reduced interest in subjects such as engineering and computer science are well known.

Research, innovation and knowledge exchange

Excellence will remain the basis for assigning research funding, and this will mean more concentration of funding. The paper notes that not every institution should feel that maximising success in REF is central to its mission. That's not really a surprise, and emphasis the fact the not all universities are the same, and nor should they be.

The student experience of higher education

There will be an expectation that universities will provide more information to prospective students on issues such as: contact hours; study responsibilities; availability of facilities and employability amongst others. The expectation is that QAA HEFCE and UKCES will work to identify a mechanism for providing this information.

Most universities make all of this readily available in prospecti, programme specifications, at open days etc - I'm not sure how providing raw data will help student choice, as it will need to be understood in the context of the whole student experience, and what we expect students as engaged partners to put into their studies.

Engaging with our communities and the wider world

A recognition that universities are major contributors to the regions in which they are located - providing employment, and and impact on the local economy from students. The wok of universities with regional development agencies is noted - we can look to our own University Quarter developments to see this in action.

Supporting a world class system

This section notes that universities in the UK do achieve excellence but that "Universities may need to withdraw from activities in which they cannot achieve excellence in order to focus on the areas where they can." Oh dear............but again, this links to the previous points about different universities doing different things. And to support this, there will be a review of fees - as trailed heavily for months - which will report after the general election. Bets are now on for the outcome of that!

Overall then, an interesting paper, and one which is supportive of UK universities. Some of the headline grabbers - the information on contact hours - pander to a press and government determined to identify students purely as customers, rather than engaged partners in the education process.

The key issues for this faculty will be around: selective funding of STEM subjects; working with different types of students; engaging with employers; reassessing our commitment to research; looking a the data provided to prospective students and eventually looking at our bursary scheme.