02 Jun A better choice for HE
Increased competition and informed choices take centre stage in the latest Higher Education White Paper ’Success as a Knowledge Economy’. As part of plans to reform the HE system, bold commitments are made around improving competition and choice for young people. But do they go far enough?
With more than half of UK Universities charging the maximum £9,000 per year tuition fees; what can young people expect when it comes to choosing a higher education course? And with plenty of information out there, you’d assume that it comes with enough support to enable young people to make an informed decision about this important step in their lives. In reality, however, this is not always the case.
Nearly 60% of higher education students claim they are dissatisfied with their education. Shockingly 10% of students also report that the information they received about their course before they enrolled was misleading and 34% would chose a different course given the opportunity again. At the same time employers are complaining about skills shortages and many graduates are struggling to secure professional roles. There are also increasing numbers of graduates who find themselves in jobs they are not well suited to or overqualified for.
The inability for young people to make an informed choice is at the heart of these issues.
The UK is at the forefront of research and innovation and undoubtedly our higher education system is one of the best in the world. Not only do individuals benefit when they invest in their own future but our economy benefits greatly when Universities produce highly technically skilled employees with increased earning potential. This is something we should be immensely proud of but it is somewhat overshadowed by the reality that many young people feel dissatisfied with their experience of higher education. Surely we’re missing the point and failing young people entirely if we’re not ensuring they are work ready when they graduate? At the same time as highlighting these learner satisfaction results, the White Paper also makes a commitment to address social mobility. It seems that, despite some improvement in figures, Universities are still not doing enough to engage with learners from a wide background.
So what are the solutions outlined by the report and do they go far enough?
Without question we simply must level the playing field. It’s not acceptable that a disproportionately high number of young people from advantaged backgrounds enter our best universities while our least privileged young people are less likely to enter into higher education at all. We know that education is fundamental in driving social mobility. The government has committed to improving transparency and to ensuring Universities provide enough information about their courses to enable young people to make more informed choices. Undoubtedly this will go someway to making post-18 easier but is it enough? If we wait until the time of application to provide the right information we are leaving it too late.
Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds switch off from the idea of going to University much sooner than Year 12 when it comes to choosing post-18 options. If they’ve already made their mind up by age 17, it’s an uphill battle to convince them otherwise. We need to start nurturing aspirations and motivating young people about their future much sooner. Too many career education interventions are designed to take place when its already too late. We are failing to see the problem and failing young people at the same time when we hope that lots of information and little support to make sense of it will be enough to inspire a young person about their future. We need to act earlier, invest in earlier interventions and provide better guidance in schools if we are to be in with a chance of inspiring young people who might not have considered going to University because of their background.
So why isn’t this happening already? Well, the impact of early interventions is difficult to track and measure and results won’t be seen quickly enough. The cost to our economy, society and to the individual of poor decisions must be worth the investment.
Another area highlighted in the Paper is the need for improved delivery of soft skills. This is something employers have been crying out for but we must take this opportunity for a different approach. In most cases, employability activities are delivered separately to the core curriculum. To give young people the best opportunity to contextualise their learning and develop the technical skills they need to secure jobs in their field of study shouldn’t we be building our system around these skills and reverse-engineering from the job backwards? The end goal of employment and employability should come first: embedded seamlessly into the degree content, creating education that is fit for purpose.
So what happens when learners are poorly informed about HE courses they have chosen? According to the White Paper it leads to regret and a feeling that the course they have invested in is poor value for money. These are real young people the system has failed and real money wasted. A sobering thought. But something can be done and the commitments made in the White Paper will be welcomed by many, but they must go further and put careers and employability at the heart of our education system to really make a difference.