What does the Journey to a Million mean for teaching provision and university facilities?

Chris Hale, writing in his former role as Director of Policy, Universities UK (UUK).
Going to university opens opportunity and transforms lives. It’s no surprise then that demand continues to be high, and more people want to experience the benefits. This, alongside the demographic growth in 18-year-olds that we are currently seeing, means that it is more important than ever for universities to be providing choice, delivering a high-quality experience, and equipping people to succeed.  There are some that think more means less, that quality and standards will decline, or that many would be better off doing something else. It’s important that we can interrogate the value of higher education, but we need a debate that starts from where people are, their own aspirations and how these can be met. As the higher education sector looks to meet these aspirations and help people get the skills they (and the country) need to thrive there are a series of strategic consideration relating to the student experience it will be important to address. 

It's all about information, advice and guidance

A first, and perhaps most urgent, issue is about information, advice, and guidance. When UUK set up our Fair Admissions Reviewi, looking at questions about admissions reform, we undertook pollingii to see what students and applicants thought. I was struck by what we got back. The most important issue for students and applicants was not what policy makers were thinking about (such as whether we should go for Post Qualification Admissions or not) but that they wanted better information, advice and guidance to support their decision making. More recently, in discussions about introducing the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) and more choice through flexible credit-based approaches, the feedback is that information, advice and guidance is going to be even more important. Universities will be a key part of this discussion, but aspirations can form in school and change over time, so we need a collaborative approach that supports learners, working with schools and colleges. An opportunity from higher education being part of DfE is the potential of having a joined-up discussion on this critical issue across the whole education system, but it is an opportunity that is not currently being taken. 

Meeting demand will require collaboration

A second critical challenge is the capacity within and outside of traditional higher education sector to absorb increasing demand and align to what learners and employers need. Challenges around capacity will be compounded by increasing pressure on costs that will see a slowing down of growth as institutions work to ensure they are financially sustainable and can maintain quality. There are real risks in terms of opportunity and choice for learners, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Part of the solution will be through collaboration across the tertiary providers to open new pathways and develop alternative forms of provision. We are already seeing some good progress on this, but the scale of demand means that greater progress is needed. 

With a strong focus on growth, ensuring people get opportunities to develop high level skills should be a priority for the current government. The Lifelong Loan Entitlement is a positive development, but the increased flexibility of funding and learning options this has the potential to introduce is just one piece of the jigsaw. Alongside this there is a need to stimulate transformation and collaboration between providers, and root this in regions and the skills needs of employers. In England the Office for Students (OfS) is helping support experimentation and unlock partnership through their short course pilots, but more is needed and at scale. In our submission to the last Spending Reviewiii, UUK proposed targeted investment in England that can support transformation and catalyse sector-led change, working with employers. 

It will also be important to examine the regulatory landscape and whether this is efficient and optimised to incentivise the best student experience for all learners. For apprenticeships, universities experience significant duplication of regulation and data requirements. Putting the learner, rather than the different requirements of regulatory bodies, at the heart of this and aligning it to supporting the best student experience will be essential. It will also ensure the cost and burden of regulation does not act as a break on growth.

Integrated planning and strategy

The third critical challenge is the need for integrated planning within institutions that is responsive to diverse and changing learner needs. Universities have been working hard at this, but it will become all the more important in the context of the journey to one million applicants. There are several dimensions to this. 

A big challenge many are facing is how to develop and integrate digitally enabled learning. The pandemic was a catalyst for experimentation and new approaches. But, as universities have moved away from crisis mode and seek to capture and mainstream the learning and benefits from this, they will face the question of how this forms part of a more strategic approach and is supported with sufficient investment. Many are in the process of exploring what their digital vision should be, the direction it will take the institution in and what it looks like for students and staff. This touches on all areas of the university and student experience and an integrated strategic approach will be necessary. Putting students and learners at the heart of that discussion will be critical to success.  

As applicants and student numbers increase, there will also be pressures on the wider student experience. In planning for growth, institutions will need to take a responsible approach that builds in the necessary support for areas such as mental health and employability. Other areas, such as such as student accommodation will not be totally within the direct control of institutions, but they will need to work with partners on a planned and integrated approach, working not only with accommodation providers but also with local authorities and community stakeholders. Again, making sure the student voice is part of this will be critical. 

These are just some of the strategic challenges the higher education sector will face on the Journey to one Million applicants. Many will already be well advanced in addressing these, and there are no easy answers, but further collaborative working, and meaningful engagement and support from government and regulators will be important. 

iUniversities UK (2020), Fair Admissions Review.


iiiUniversities UK (2021), Our universities: maximising a national asset.

Chris Hale

Writing in his former role as Director of Policy, Universities UK (UUK) 

Chris has spent many years working in higher education policy, most recently as Director of Policy at Universities UK (UUK) and a period as acting CEO in 2022. Chris has also worked at the General Medical Council and University of Sussex. He is currently living in Aotearoa New Zealand, relocating in early 2023 to be nearer family. Chris retains a strong interest in higher education and is currently working as an independent adviser and consultant.