What does the Journey to a Million mean for funding of future provision?

Rt Hon. Lord Willetts FRS, President of the Resolution Foundation and Former Minister for Universities and Science.

The British higher education (HE) debate is pre-occupied with the anxiety that too many people go to university. In some quarters, there is particular unhappiness with Tony Blair’s target of 50% participation in higher education which is sometimes seen as being responsible for increased participation. But that was never really a target for policy — it was just the classic political device of taking a trend and announcing it is a target. The increase in participation is nothing to do with Tony Blair’s target: it is simply the result of the personal aspirations of millions of young people and their parents. 

The underlying trend is pretty clear not just in England or the UK but across the OECD. In almost every year in almost every OECD country the proportion of young people participating in HE goes up. This trend is likely to be particularly marked in the UK over the next few years. The increase in the birth rate in the first decade of the millennium is now feeding through into more potential students. Young people from more disadvantaged groups are still catching up with participation rates of students from middle class families. And British universities are an attractive destination for a surging number of prospective students from around the world. We are going to have many more university students.

This really should just be the solid shared empirical basis for policy. It should be the starting point for the interesting and important debate about how this growth surge is best met. It opens up several issues.

More students, so more universities?

For a start are these increasing number of students just to go to existing universities? That would mean our universities individually got a lot bigger. That in turn does mean a wider range of services and courses becomes viable. The US and India have universities much bigger than we do — indeed ours look rather like a cottage industry to them. It would also probably mean further big changes in the character of our main student-importing cities. But is that what students want? And would it be a missed opportunity to do something different?

Alternatively there could be an initiative to help meet the demand by creating new universities or other higher education institutions as happened with the Robbins expansion. One route is the creation of distinctive small new higher education institutions such as NMITE (The New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering) at Hereford. It would also involve providing a clear route for existing large further education (FE) colleges with some HE provision to become universities in their own right. The new Institutes of Technology would also be candidates.

Warming up the UK’s cold spots

There could be an open process of inviting applications for new entities to get on a route to university status. They could be bids to a start-up fund to help get it going. It would be a vivid and practical form of levelling up if priority were given to the cold spots which currently don’t have their own university. A starting assumption could be that every major town should have some form of higher education institution. Andrew Adonis and Tony Blair point out that: “There are 46 towns in England with a population of over 80,000 which still, in 2021, have no university of their own, including large and economically disadvantaged towns such as Hartlepool, Doncaster, Batley and Blackpool.”That at least suggests a possible long list of candidates. 

It does matter if a place has a university. Not all students are willing to live a long way from the family home. The basic rule is that the richer the parents the greater the likely distance of the university from the family home. So having a university nearby is particularly good for participation. And universities do of course bring well-paid jobs and surges in spending including extra export earnings from the spend by foreign students. They also promote local public services notably medicine. Indeed, the likely growth of number of medical students is an opportunity for a similar competition to create new medical schools.

Even if a place has one university a second one can provide a further boost — especially if it has a rather different mission and character. Research by Anna Valero and John Van Reenen at the LSE suggests “a 10% increase in the number of universities in a region is associated with 0.4% higher GDP per person.”ii

Potential for partnerships

There could also be partnerships with overseas universities. New York ran a famous competition for a new university to come to the city a decade ago. Influenced by them I launched an attempt to attract an overseas university to the UK, but it did not work as we did not have enough to offer — no site and no funding. But sites could be made available in for example the new investment zones and perhaps a share of any start-up funding too. It would be great to get overseas universities setting up here — perhaps in partnership with a local university. That in turn might offer greater new opportunities for students to some of their course at an overseas campus. 

Growth is also an opportunity for promoting innovation as happened with previous rounds of HEIs. The competition could have an innovation element. Hereford and Dyson are great examples of this. Imagine fresh ways of teaching STEM subjects which appeal to those who have missed out from doing them at A level — rather as Classics has been transformed as it tries to recruit people who do not have A levels in Latin or Greek. There could be scope to deliver more higher education online.

There are many other issues and options.  How to manage this surge in student numbers should be one of the big issues in HE policy now. Otherwise, future historians will look back on this moment and wonder why we failed to do anything to plan for or take advantage of the opportunities created by the growth which is so clearly coming.  

iTony Blair and Andrew Adonis (June 2021), Submission to The Times Education Commission.

iiAnna Valero and John Van Reenen (February 2019), The Economic Impact of Universities: Evidence from Across the Globe.

The Rt Hon. Lord Willetts FRS

President of the Resolution Foundation

The Rt Hon. Lord Willetts FRS is the President of the Resolution Foundation.  He is a visiting Professor at King’s College London and an Honorary Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford. He was Chancellor of the University of Leicester.  

 He served as the Member of Parliament for Havant (1992-2015), as Minister for Universities and Science (2010-2014) and previously worked at HM Treasury and the No. 10 Policy Unit. 

 Lord Willetts has written widely on economic and social policy. His book “A University Education” is published by Oxford University Press. A second edition of his book “The Pinch” on fairness between the generations was published in 2019.