Sadly, higher education is unlikely to feature in the upcoming elections. To put it simply: there are not enough votes in it. The opposition is urging young people to register their vote and that is likely as ‘hot’ as it gets, which should really worry us. Higher education is of paramount importance to the social and economic wellbeing of a country. That is not a fake-political statement, there is plenty of evidence to support it. So here are three topics that really ought to get politicians talking.
Firstly, there is the often misunderstood topic of accessibility.
Highly talented applicants from underrepresented or non-traditional backgrounds too often still are being ignored by the most selective universities in England. That is unhelpful for all concerned, and hinders future prosperity of the country as a whole. Plus on the other side of the spectrum, those for whom education will be truly life changing yet whose education requires significant extra effort, are currently the least well-funded. That is unfair, and I believe also economically not very smart.
Secondly, there is the imperative to stimulate diversity in the sector.
The assumption that higher education is a pyramid with Oxbridge at the summit is not helpful. It might be true for research, but that is only one element and in fairness, from a student point of view, relevant for only a few percent. The strength of the tertiary sector for the country rests in its diversity, in its ability to unleash richness in a wide range of talent (not just academic gift), to serve a large, rapidly evolving range of socio-economic needs. The current funding systems implicitly seem to support a convention where we need to focus on innovation to enhance sector diversity, now predominantly a task left to so-called alternative providers.
The government finally seems to accept that one cannot expect higher education to be world class without access to global talent
Thirdly, but certainly no less, is the international agenda.
The government finally seems to accept that one cannot expect higher education to be world class without access to global talent: for research, for teaching, and importantly, for the classroom. Not only do we need to attract the most talented as a matter of national self-interest, it is equally important that domestic students study along the global best and brightest. Students should learn to be comfortable working in a globalised environment, have study abroad periods, and an understanding of foreign languages and cultures to enable them to rise to leading positions. As mentioned, the most talented are not just the academically most gifted, so this is not just about the interests of research led institutions. International students are a priority for the entire sector.
This is not only essential from an educational point of view; it is equally essential for the financial survival of high-quality education. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to understand that without the extra funds and scale of international students, the cost of quality education will have to increase rapidly for domestic students.
Without a guarantee for continued access to the extensive EU funding for research, mobility programmes, and innovation, the standing of our higher education is at risk of sliding down rapidly.
Politicians, each from their own ideological point of view, should have plenty to say about these themes. If these elections are really about the future of our country, parties should acknowledge that (higher) education is the key to our future prosperity and hence should spell out clearly their views and plans.
Professor Dr Maurits van Rooijen is an economic historian and the Chief Academic Officer of Global University Systems (GUS), an international group of universities and higher education institutions with campuses in the UK, Germany, Ireland, Singapore and Canada.