Prof Thirunamachandran: Will the next decade be the soaring 20s for HE?

In our post-election special, vice-chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University calls for the government to prioritise work-focused education and flexibility in upskilling

A new government gives us the chance to give fresh impetus to crucial agendas.

Politicians from all parties have emphasised the need for the UK to reboot its offer to people looking for vocational or employer-led education, often called higher technical education.

Higher education, in this new offer, should be one for people at all ages and stages in life, as the Conservative manifesto states, not just aimed at young school or college leavers. 

Modern universities, like my own, are a driving force of higher technical education across the UK and, by working in partnership with employers, HE students are offered the opportunity to learn using work-placements, degree apprenticeships and by studying innovative courses that are simultaneously technical and academic.

In 2017–18, 96% of modern universities offered support to students, allowing them to unlock their ingenuity by creating start-up companies and social enterprises. 

A shared mission

Modern universities also work closely with further education (FE) colleges who share our mission to be engaged, technically focused and community-based institutions. Across the UK, 13 FE colleges are part of the group structures of MillionPlus member universities. This level of innovation in provision and partnerships is almost unheard of in many of our European neighbours.

Higher technical education at modern universities equips people not only with hands-on skills but with the underpinning knowledge that will equip them well to deal with the changes in job roles being wrought by AI and in the automation decade to come. 

The new government should commit to enabling greater diversity of provision, which is focused on the workplace, including continued support for high-level education and training through the apprenticeship levy. The apprenticeship policy must remain an employer-led one, not skewed to fit gaps in publicly funded provision at low levels.

Ensuring this refreshed higher education offer is flexible and open to people throughout their working lives is critical. Here modern universities, particularly those represented by MillionPlus, excel in what they offer.

MillionPlus universities also have the highest proportion of students who are mature learners or who study flexibly among all of England and Scotland’s campus universities. 

Earn and learn

Yet, the chance to both earn and learn has been hindered by the impact of the Great Recession and austerity on training budgets and changes to the regime for higher education fees. Programmes below degree-level, which were often studied part-time and/or while in work, have seen their take-up plummet dramatically. 

The good news is that the government has renewed its commitment to technical education and lifelong learning in its manifesto. Fixing this challenge is possible by making student loans available for smaller blocks of learning than a degree and by bringing back grants or bursaries for less well-off prospective students. 

Both were thoughtful recommendations put forward by the Augar Review, which the government might helpfully accept. 

There is reason to be optimistic when we see the opportunities before us. 

The decade ahead can be the ‘soaring twenties’ if the UK thinks modern and supercharges the skills and innovation of its people by harnessing and embracing the role and potential of modern universities.

Professor Rama Thirunamachandran is chair of MillionPlus, The Association for Modern Universities, and vice-chancellor of Canterbury Christ Church University.

Follow on Twitter: @million_plus | @CanterburyCCUni | #thinkmodern

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