UK: A course of radical action.

UK: A course of radical action. - The government's aim to increase the numbers in higher education has forced education bodies to put their thinking caps on, says Trevor Smith.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The government's aim to increase the numbers in higher education has forced education bodies to put their thinking caps on, says Trevor Smith.

It won't have escaped anyone's notice that higher education in the UK is undergoing a series of profound changes - the most public of which has been the granting of university status to the polytechnics. But there are other influences at work stemming partly from inside the institutions of higher education and partly from outside.

The stimulus for much of this change clearly comes from public policy which aims to increase substantially participation in higher education. By the year 2000, government policy is geared to having one in three 18-year-olds enter higher education. Currently 23% of this age group enter third-level education in England and Wales, 31% in Scotland and 32% in Northern Ireland. It is expected that in the Scottish and Ulster regions participation rates will reach 45% by the year 2000.

Such growth in student numbers without the release of additional resources requires an imaginative response from our higher education institutions. What will emerge, and indeed what is already emerging, is a common UK, two-semester, modularised structure, with credit accumulation and transfer schemes permitting students to move between universities, thus shaping their own courses subject to quality controls and academic safeguards. Some universities plan to meet increased demand by adopting a three-semester system with virtual year-round working, thereby utilising existing physical plant more intensively.

In essence, we are witnessing the Americanisation of third-level UK education, a process which will result in much greater differentiation. There will be perhaps 10 major research universities, usually located in centres of urban concentration, and there will be more extensive collaboration between them to try to minimise equipment and labour costs. At the other end of the scale, there will be institutions whose priority will be teaching, and some which fall between the two, combining a full range of teaching but also undertaking a significant amount of research.

Teaching universities will form two distinct groups: the former polytechnics, principally concerned with the provision of mass higher education; and those smaller universities located outside major population centres. The latter, essentially campus universities, seek to provide a total environment appeal in the manner of the best American liberal arts colleges, since they have no densely populated hinterland. Universities such as Exeter, East Anglia, Lancaster, Bangor and St David's (Lampeter) have a market opportunity to develop along these lines. They will perhaps appeal to a more middle-class market, as well as to a more international one than the former polytechnics, who are increasingly likely to cater for their own regional demand. Universities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will have to combine teaching and research because of their importance in providing the infrastructure for applied research, necessary to attract inward investment to these regions.

These, then, are the different types of institution emerging today, and the different thrusts they will adopt to position themselves in a more segmented market. The management of change will require all higher education institutions to pursue a course of radical rationalisation. At a time when unit costs are being squeezed ever more tightly the whole teaching and learning process will have to adapt and become less labour-intensive. New teaching methodologies, use of computer and multi-media packages, distance learning and independent study modules will become widespread.

The academic's role will become more specialised and professional, concentrating on what he or she was trained to do: research and teaching. Hitherto related activities, such as pastoral counselling, will tend to become the responsibility of professional student counsellors, while the task of keeping student records will be allocated to appropriate clerical and administrative staff.

With current wage levels, academic staff morale is low. This emphasises the need to enhance professionalism through proper human resource management by rewarding excellent teaching as well as excellent research. This holds true not only for those institutions concentrating on teaching but also for the major research universities if they are to maintain the quality of their teaching.

Within top management, there will be a greater mixing of career administrators and academic managers - those erstwhile academics who have turned their hand to higher education management. Vice-chancellors will, I believe, increasingly resemble their US counterparts, becoming like football managers who head-hunt stars and entice them to lead research teams by offering superior salaries and conditions. Universities, particularly the larger ones, will become more akin to conglomerates, comprising a number of semi-autonomous subsidiaries, with budgeting devolved to cost centres on a faculty or school basis. Certainly, greater variety is necessary if universities are to respond to the differing demands of individuals and the wider society. British higher education has always enjoyed an excellent international reputation and it is important that we stay ahead of the field. However it is only now beginning to accept one of the facts long familiar to every commercial manager, namely, the need to adapt to and anticipate changing market conditions. Universities have always been extremely good at analysing changing situations and creating ideas but much less effective at putting these ideas into practice. It is perhaps part of a more general British disease; the race will go to the swift.

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