How can diversifying providers help meet the challenge of a Journey to a Million?

Joy Elliott-Bowman, Director of Policy and Development, Independent Higher Education (IHE)
To make the most of an increase in student demand, we need to develop and deliver higher education as diverse and forward-thinking as the industries it serves. We must not be satisfied with only expanding to meet demand as we currently see it: UK higher education needs to embrace diversity within provision and seek to elevate professional and industry-focused courses to the same level as traditional subject-based delivery to meet changing economic needs.

Investment in students’ future

The value of a degree, for the student and the taxpayer, has become the go-to narrative on higher education in some parts of the media. For government policy makers, graduate outcomes became taxpayer outcomes in the proposed higher education reforms from early 2022, which sought to limit funding for courses seen to offer ‘low value’.i In a recent survey for the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), an overwhelming number of students rejected limiting access to funding for specific courses (53% strongly disagreed and 16% disagreed) but were clear that university courses needed to be more employment-orientated. 90% of respondents felt that most (53%) or some (37%) “university courses should be designed mainly with future employment in mind”.ii 

The majority of degree subjects do not have an industry or career goal inherent in their design. While this can be a good fit for some students, it can actively dissuade many others from stepping into higher education. Strong links between higher education programmes and industries or career opportunities not only support student decision making but can also boost success as industry interactions can raise ambitions throughout study. 

The challenge for higher education is how to adapt and innovate to not only support students with very real fears about return on investment, but also ensure we are responding to the government’s agenda to deliver courses that meet the needs of an economy currently suffering from a lack of productivity. We cannot simply grow higher education with more of what is currently on offer; we need to reflect the needs of the local (and global) economy as they have the strongest links to employment. 

Meeting skills needs

IHE is currently undertaking a project to explore how specialist higher education providers can meet skills needs in different parts of the country. In this, we looked more closely at the subjects and skills offered by specialist providers across the country, and the skills and industries important to different local areas, to see where there might be opportunities for specialist providers to offer a more focused solution to address gaps. What quickly became apparent from our data is that subject is a poor representation of what students gain from a qualification, and where interdisciplinary approaches are applied there can be a greater match to local skills needs. An industry requires many different skills to support growth and where students have the opportunity to immerse themselves in an industry thriving in their local area, they take it. 

In reviewing data from live job adverts to identify skills needs, one of the top skills needed across the country is customer service. Government rhetoric on value suggests that a degree in customer service, which would most certainly fall into the business subject category, may have funding restricted in the future. With possible restrictions on funding, no sensible higher education provider would see this data and jump to create a BA in Customer Service. What is interesting is that this skill is important in areas where very different industries are experiencing high growth. From the transportation and storage industry in North Northamptonshire, to the water supply industry in Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham, customer service skills are consistently rated as highly important to the local area. The conclusion is unsurprising: an industry requires many different skills to grow. IHE members like the Global Institute for Sport, Backstage Academy, TEDI or Dartington Trust, look at their industries and subjects through an interdisciplinary lens. Led by working professionals, interdisciplinary models encourage students to learn for a future in their industry or specialism and provide immersive experiences for evolving skills development. A focus on skills for doing can attract a different type of student – including those who may not have considered higher education as an option – and keep them learning.  

Promoting flexibility

When commentators discuss growth, they ordinarily make two assumptions, only because UK and global education policy has engineered them as the only options: 

  1. Over 50% of the growing demographic of 14–16-year-olds in the UK will all want to go to university at 18 and do a degree in one go.
  2. The growing global demographic of 18–25-year-olds will all want to do an in-person degree in one go.

From the way we fund students through the loan process to the current student immigration model, we have scripted the rise in degree level study in the UK for over 25 years. Each assumption we have made has been based on the question “why would you want to study anything other than a degree?”

The coinciding developments of Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQ) and the Lifelong Loan entitlement (LLE) have the potential to shake things up, offering students the opportunity to study in a more flexible way. They may also attract more mature students than predicted, supporting re-training and upskilling for students likely to remain local post-study. Working closely with local skills initiatives, small and medium sized higher education providers have been in the business of offering shorter learning options for many years – and these will hopefully be funded through the LLE in the future. Stackable courses allow students to more easily combine work and learning and keep pace as they chart their own paths to employment or a future career. The challenge will be helping students to see the opportunities presented via more flexible study when we have spent a considerable amount of policy effort convincing them it’s not a credible route. IHE members, who have many years’ experience of teaching in this way to support their industries to grow, are left wondering if championing flexible higher education will be a whole government approach, or simply something the Department for Education (DfE) pushes at UK students. 

The Journey to a Million is not just about growth, for independent HE providers or the wider sector. It is an opportunity for HE providers, government, local skills initiatives and industry leaders to expand student choice and through this diversity. It will mean taking bold steps outside of our comfort zones: investing in new delivery models, new approaches to subject and specialism, and perhaps most importantly, a new workforce. From the industry professional to the community leader – all have a role to play in teaching and re-skilling the next generation of graduates. For government it means expanding international as well as UK student choice. With government policy to not only fund but support change this can be an environment ripe for new models. We must be brave enough to let go of old stereotypes, bring in new voices, and deliver the education model our domestic and global students need for the 21st century.   

iDepartment for Education (February 2022), Higher education policy statement.

iiHEPI (December 2022), Most students oppose the plans in England to reduce access to student loans for those on certain courses – but they do want to see courses more focused on employment.

Joy Elliott-Bowman

Director of Policy and Development, Independent Higher Education (IHE)

Joy Elliott-Bowman is the Director of Policy and Development at Independent Higher Education. She leads IHE’s policy development, advocacy and member support as well as facilitating good practice across the independent sector. She has over 20 years of experience in the British and Canadian education sectors, working from within universities, independent providers, students’ unions, and national student and higher education sector organisations. She has led IHE’s support for the APPG for International Students since its inception in 2016. While working across all aspects of higher education policy, Joy has a specific interest in international education policy, student engagement, quality and innovation in both higher education and skills.