The Future of Higher Education

The Future of Higher Education

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to comment on the Department for Education & Skills White Paper on the future of higher education. This response has been compiled by the General Secretary, Professor Andrew Miller and the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands, with the assistance of a number of Fellows with extensive experience in this area.

The White Paper on the future of higher education in Britain has done much to consolidate the Government’s view that higher education is a desirable goal for a large fraction of school leavers, translating into life-long assets for those who complete their studies. Either at the point of leaving school or through learning opportunities later in adult life, further and higher education together provide the essential basis for an educated and skilled work force able to sustain Britain’s position as a modern, industrial country.

The Paper also recognises the pressures which face higher education both from our failure to invest adequately over many years in resource, the challenge from overseas and the social class division which continues. But while the view from Whitehall appears to have stabilised, the higher education system and the universities themselves are far from being in a settled state. There is an intensifying competition for status between otherwise collegiate institutions; the growing gap between higher education in Scotland and higher education in England; and the problem of funding an expanding higher education system at an adequate level without on one hand, bankrupting the exchequer or on the other, alienating potential students.

The changes proposed in England will also impact on Scottish higher education in a number of significant ways. In many vital respects (the market for academic staff, most aspects of research activity, and marketing overseas, to give just a few examples) higher education is predominantly a UK system. It should also be emphasised that this is a UK-wide problem that needs to be addressed urgently by all the relevant administrations, and that the actions taken need to be co-ordinated because the HE sectors in different parts of the UK are not self-contained. However, the actions do not have to be identical. The White paper could have done well to look to the situation in Scotland. Several of the new strategies for the English system proposed in the Paper are already in place in Scotland. For example, Scotland’s participation rates in higher education as a whole (50.4%) are currently at the level proposed as a target for the English sector in 2010 (50%). In this regard, there is merit in Westminster and Whitehall looking to both the Scottish Parliament and the Executive when formulating what are effectively UK wide policies.

The Government clearly wish to create a much more differentiated university sector and quote, with apparent approval, the Californian State University system. However, this system came into being as a result of legislation by the State of California in which the roles of the individual constituted colleges were carefully defined. The White Paper pulls back from this reasonably rational approach, presumably because it would require potentially contentious primary legislation, and seeks to do the same thing by manipulating the Funding Council. The Funding Council can, in turn, only manipulate the universities by altering the parameters in its funding formula. The problem with this approach is that not only is the funding formula becoming immensely complex, but it is becoming more and more difficult to predict the longer term consequences of these changes. Universities have local, regional, national and international roles and responsibilities and it would have been better to have examined, at each geographical level, the roles that should be played by the FE and HE sectors together, rather than attempting to create a striated system through the manipulation of so blunt an instrument as the Funding Council formula.

In addition, care should be taken to avoid the assumption that ‘world class’ research should be concentrated in a very limited number of ‘world class’ Universities, on which the bulk of public research funding would be concentrated. The idea that ‘world class’ research essentially covering all disciplines should reside in a single, or limited number, of individual institutions is a flawed and outdated concept and one which has the potential to seriously damage the vast majority of Universities and higher Educational institutions, not only in Scotland, but also throughout the UK. Instead, the focus should be on ‘world class’ departments within different Institutions rather than on ‘world class’ institutions. In other words diversity should be actively promoted and Institutions should be encouraged to concentrate resources on areas where they can achieve international excellence rather than seeking to cover all disciplines.

The specific areas of the White Paper are addressed below:

The need for reform

The Paper correctly identifies the pressures that exist in the HE sector (and for individual staff) in finding a balance between teaching, research, knowledge transfer and innovation, supporting local industry and, ultimately, balancing the budget. However, the funding and evaluation systems that have been applied to institutions in the name of ‘accountability’ and ‘increasing standards’ have often exacerbated the problems.

Research excellence - building on our strengths

Organisation of research
The funding of research infrastructure does require substantial resources and not all universities can aspire to the same model. However, it is a mistake to imagine that a small number of quite large institutions of very high quality can exist in isolation. They need to rest on a base of institutions, perhaps less prestigious, but where capable staff can do valuable work and in which new staff can make a reputation and possibly be recruited to the top research groups. There exists a continuous spectrum of distinction in research.

A healthy system must be dynamic and flexible. The danger of creating new demarcation lines is that they may become very rigid and hierarchical, inhibiting cross-boundary interactions. Depending upon the regional distribution of differentiated institutions, it may also limit the expectations for regional economic growth and cause further imbalance in demographics between regions. The approach will also run the risk of an overly great focus of people and resources into a narrow range of topic areas. This may be good for the research output but will have detrimental effects on the range of knowledge and skills available to the UK economy. There is need for a mechanism to ensure that the skills requirements of particular sectors of the economy are kept in view.

The Paper also discusses the relationship between research and teaching. While the link may be relatively weak at the level of the first two years of undergraduate education, for those who have taught in universities, it is clear that research is very valuable in underpinning advanced levels of first degree (Honours) education, as well as masters degrees.

Research Assessment

The proposal to create a 6* category for research from a reassessment of the outcomes of the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) will serve to further concentrate funding and resources for research. This could mean that facilities outwith the ‘golden triangle’ – in the English regions as much as Scotland – may lose essential funding and, in turn, talented research staff who may look for more lucrative and better resourced positions elsewhere. It is also difficult to see how a 6* rating can be easily derived from the data in the previous RAE since institutions made submission based on the stated rating scale at the time and the different policies of the funding councils. For example, in Scotland, unlike the situation in England, the Funding Council did not specifically commit to fund 5 and 5* differentially. Consequently, it is doubtful whether a 6* rating can be constructed retrospectively which would a) have credibility throughout the UK and b) which would withstand legal challenge in the form of a judicial review.

Nevertheless, if a 6* rating is introduced, it will be important that this should be on the basis of it being a UK wide designation and as such, as a prerequisite to its introduction, it will be essential that a fair and equitable assessment methodology be established for all institutions throughout the UK.

Supporting our Leading Universities and Emerging Research

While evidence from competing countries suggests that size matters and that bigger and more professionally managed organisations appear to produce better results, the danger, as the document recognises, is the potential for ossification. Supporting new ideas and emerging research remains critical to long-term progress.

The Creation of an Arts and Humanities Research Council

The Society welcomes the creation of the Arts and Humanities Research Council which will be able to cultivate an academic sector that has traditionally lacked that kind of funding focus. There would also be merit if, from the outset, there was scope for this new Council to be involved in the encouragement of multi-disciplinary research between the arts and sciences.

Investing in Researchers

The Society believes the proposal to identify and support the best young researchers in flexible fashion is very positive and the monitoring of this process will be important.

Higher education and business - exchanging and developing knowledge and skills

Knowledge Transfer

Knowledge and skill transfer is an important component of the White Paper. Partnerships between HE and business are already well developed in some regions but the process is patchy and needs to be encouraged to a much greater extent.

While success in pursuing research of relevance to commerce and industry may not correlate directly with RAE ratings, it could be virtually impossible to establish successful consultancy at least in scientific and technical subjects, without experience of research and generally a close link with research. Additionally, in more technological areas of work, there is a close link between research and development and the technology transfer. Academics should be encouraged to think, in not necessarily to practice, how knowledge can become useful knowledge.

Knowledge Exchanges

The proposed network of Knowledge Exchanges have structures that are a little similar to bodies such as Technology Ventures Scotland and Connect in Scotland. Additionally, in many parts of England the Regional Development Agencies already provide a kind of university ‘introduction service’ that is envisaged for the Knowledge Exchanges.

Strengthening Regional Partnership

Closer relationships between business and higher education institutions is to be welcomed but in some regions the industrial base simply does not exist to exploit the scope for collaboration with academia. In some cases world class researchers cannot find any local businesses to work with and need to collaborate with industry outside their region or indeed outside the UK.

Higher Education and development of skills for the workplace

Industry-based Foundation degrees have been a good development but they have yet to establish strong credibility in industry, where HNDs remain the qualifications for technicians. If the Foundation degree is to become the ‘standard two-year qualification’ then it needs strong promotion amongst industrialists and will also have implications for course ladders in Scotland. These classes will not necessarily be cheap, as classes tend to be small and contain a large amount of practical work, closely supervised. The relative amount of practical content can often be double that in most current full-time undergraduate courses. This can also cause difficulties for course providers if funding models do not include appropriate weightings to recognise these increased course costs.

Teaching and learning - delivering excellence

Ensuring universal good provision

Much of what is proposed will depend upon national professional standards being developed, accepted and widely implemented. Nonetheless, the Quality Assurance Agency has already done much to improve the quality of teaching and consequently the status of teaching in the HE sector. The government’s support of the Higher Education Institutions’ human resources strategies will also encourage institutions to take the appropriate steps to recruit and retain good teaching staff. However, at the end of the day, recognition of teaching quality turns on attitudes in individual institutions, particularly those that are research-intensive. Promotion based on teaching/learning skills and expertise in these institutions can often be a distinct rarity.

Fair pay in higher education

The recognition of the fact that academic salaries have fallen far behind other professional salaries over the past two decades is welcome, as are the funding increases proposed.

Spreading Best Practice in Teaching

The Society supports the proposals to establish the Learning and Teaching Academy and the Leadership Foundation, although there would be merits in a single organisation embracing both the Academy and the Foundation. Given the work of the three existing UK-wide agencies will be absorbed into these new structures, it will be important to see them continue to operate on a UK-wide basis, with the stakeholders in different parts of the UK working together as partners.

Rewards for Excellence

The agenda in Scotland is focussed on continuous quality improvement, improving the engagement with students, and shifting the culture of institutions. The approach of rewarding the few is unlikely to raise the quality of teaching across the board but rather, as with the proposals on research, to concentrate resources in a few selected institutions to the likely detriment of the vast majority.

University Title

Whilst any change in University title and degree awarding powers would not affect many existing institutions in Scotland, the proposed effective separation of teaching from research could undermine what many would see as an essential component of the ‘University experience’ i.e. the inter-relationship between academic research, scholarship and teaching. This could also damage the sector’s high international reputation by reducing the rigour of the conditions to be satisfied for granting University title.

Expanding higher education to meet our needs

The Case for Expansion

The case for expansion of higher education is soundly based and the 50% target is currently being achieved in Scotland in terms of participation as a whole. Since 40% of the new jobs in the present decade will apparently be in the associate professional and higher technical echelons, the development of work-focused Foundation Degrees is seen to be an important component of the process of expansion. Nonetheless, for Foundation Degrees to be fully effective society will have to change its attitude to such vocational programmes and not only recognise the enhanced status of these qualifications but reward the graduates accordingly. Employers have a key role in this process.

In addition, it is clear that unless this is associated with a significantly increased injection of resource, the quality of the educational opportunities which will be available to students will necessarily diminish, as size and structure are intimately associated.

Changing the pattern of provision

The RSE welcomes the plan to offer work-focused and other educational programmes to a wider range of students and to use modern technology to greater advantage.

Delivering Higher Education (HE) in Further Education (FE)

The binary line which once divided universities from polytechnics still divides the world of HE and FE in a way which relegates vocational studies to the second best. The value of the comprehensive general first degree is that it embraces the entire range of academic and non-academic studies to the great advantage of both – and thus it renders irrelevant the labels of HE and FE which are unknown elsewhere. An integrated approach to the funding, content, access methods, infrastructure, estates and staffing of tertiary education should logically follow and the proposed merger of the currently separate Funding Councils in Scotland is a step in this direction.

Inclusive and Flexible Teaching and Learning

Information and communication technologies and e-learning will undoubtedly be major assets in the future developments of Higher Education and in the context of Foundation Degrees in particular.

Fair access

Raising Aspirations

The measures targeted at making higher education more attractive to social groups with low participation rates are steps in the right direction. Current social factors may lead to a low evaluation of the importance of higher education and economic circumstances may make it necessary to take a full-time job after leaving school, rather than incur debts in the hope of greater income later. In addition, for many reasons, during primary and secondary education those from disadvantaged backgrounds do not gain the necessary qualifications.

The Access Regulator

The intention of increasing access is welcome, however the role of the access regulator and the value it presents towards achieving this aim, has yet to be ascertained.

Freedoms and funding


Debt burden, or the apprehension of debt, has continually been a clear impediment to wider access. A family will not easily contemplate one of their number concluding an undergraduate degree with a debt burden higher than the entire annual income of that family. Adding top-up fees to the ultimate cost of higher education will simply contribute to such deterrence.

The Paper recognises the funding difficulties being experienced within the HE sector but takes the view that these cannot be resolved by the provision of further large increases in public funds. There is an apparent contradiction between this position and the statement that fees charged by universities, which will only be recovered on a 10 to 20 year time scale following graduation, will nonetheless be made available immediately by the Treasury to universities. In addition, it is pledged that the Treasury will recompense the immediate loss of £1,100 per student, currently paid up-front to every university. The only way of reconciling this promises with the reluctance by the Government to commit significant additional public funds to universities could be to believe that the Treasury will reduce its block grant to the Funding Council by an amount approximately equal to the additional funds that the universities otherwise might expect.

However, if this is not the case resources available to English HEIs will increase substantially from 2006 under the proposed deferred fee regime of up to £3,000 per year of study. It is proposed that HEIs in England would be free to impose such deferred fees selectively or generally, while in Scotland the Scottish Executive has indicated that it would oppose the introduction of ‘top-up’ fees. If the Westminster Government uses resource accounting to convert the payments due at some future date into cash in hand at the time the commitment is incurred, then the additional resources may start to flow into English, Welsh and Northern Ireland institutions during the course of 2006-7. If no more resources are made available in Scotland, there will be higher increases in the rest of the UK compared with modest movement in Scotland. This would again adversely affect Scotland’s ability to attract and retain the best academic staff. It should also be recognised that universities in regions with difficult socio-economic conditions may be unable to charge the full amount of student fees and that this shortfall will further expand the gap between unit funding provision and the actual cost of providing courses.

Independence through Endowment

It would be excellent if universities had endowment funds from which, like Harvard, they could finance entering students to whatever extent was needed, according to their financial circumstances. However, building up endowments will be difficult for the great majority of universities in the UK. Although many universities have made strenuous and professional efforts over recent years to attract such funds from alumni success has been modest and even the wealthiest universities have limited resources of this kind. One reason is simply that compared with the USA, the UK has a much smaller number of graduates with appropriate disposable incomes.

The Graduate Contribution Scheme

The Royal Society of Edinburgh believes society benefits from the graduates produced through higher education, not only in terms of technological and professional skills but also in having a well informed and critical population. In the modern competitive world a large graduate population is essential for economic survival. Nevertheless, there is a case for making students contribute financially towards their higher education, when their annual income allows them to do so, principally because it is an investment from which they can expect to benefit financially in future. The Scottish Graduate Endowment, or as proposed in the Paper, the graduate contribution in England from 2006, is therefore appropriate.

The level of graduate annual income proposed of £15,000 when a liability to pay will commence, whilst clearly more appropriate than £10,000 as introduced by the Scottish Executive in 2001, remains too low. There would be merit in the level of annual income being at least £25,000. It is worth noting that in many countries such as the USA, students do depend on large loans to finance their education. However, in these countries, at least on average, the pay differential for having a good qualification is normally very significant and more than compensates for the loan. As it stands, it is likely to affect attitudes to employment and remuneration. For example, the question needs to be asked whether the level of debt adversely affects recruitment to jobs or professions with high academic requirements but often below average financial rewards e.g. the caring professions and certain areas of teaching. Accordingly, some of the most academically able graduates may therefore be discouraged from entering these nationally important jobs by high levels of debt incurred as students.

In addition, if the Scottish graduate endowment level remains unchanged, then price incentives for students to study in Scotland could result. Since, under current legislation, EU domiciled students must be treated the same as Scottish domiciled, it is possible that Scotland could also look more attractive than the other regions of the UK to existing EU students. This potentially higher demand for places in Scottish HEIs could hamper efforts to widen access to disadvantaged communities in Scotland, although it could be argued that the potential benefits to Scotland of inward migration of talented people from across Europe may have wider social and economic benefits.

Safeguards for students

While the student population is not uniform it is recognised that the present level of loans, even at the maximum level, is not adequate to support full-time study for a degree at a Scottish University without substantial "parental contribution" or student earnings from part-time or vacation work. This creates particularly serious problems for mature students, lone parents and students from low-income families.

It is also recognised that while there are certain benefits from an element of work experience, the present higher education system is not geared to students working part-time during the academic term. There is also strong evidence that in some subjects this work impinges upon the quality of students’ performance and causes some students to fail to reach their full potential. Many students also experience stress both during and after their courses as a result of their relatively high level of financial indebtedness.

The restoration of maintenance grants, albeit at low levels is a positive move to increase access for students from deprived backgrounds.

Additional Information

In responding to this consultation the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject:

Knowledge Transfer
Commercialisation Enquiry: Final Report (1996);
Research and Knowledge Transfer in Scotland (September 2002)

Higher Education Research
Research and the Knowledge Age (April 2000);
Review of Research Policy and Funding (April 2001);
Review of Research Assessment (December 2002).

Student Finance
The Independent Committee of Inquiry into Student Finance (September 1999);
Higher Education Teaching
Funding for the Future: A Consultation on the Funding of Teaching (March 1999);
Funding for the Future: Stage 2 Consultation Paper on the Funding of Teaching (April 2000);
Review of the supply of scientists and engineers (August 2001)

Higher Education - General
Devolution and Science (April 1999);
A Framework for Economic Development (March 2000);
A Science Strategy for Scotland (July 2000);
SHEFC Teaching and Research Funding Inquiry (May 2001)
Scottish Higher Education Review (January 2002);
Scottish Higher Education Review: Second Consultation Paper (August 2002)


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