HEA conference, day two, Panel

by Paul Maharg on 23/06/2010

Quality was the agenda for the Panel session.  What sort?  Quality based on diversity, of students and institutions was Aaron Porter's answer.  But, he warned, if students are going to be paying more for that experience, there needs to be a better experience.  They can't be expected to be given the same at a higher price. Phil Willis raised a similar issue; and Mike Baker, in the Chair, raised the comparison of Vice Chancellors and football managers, not least in terms of pay…   

How will the 21st century student be affected by the cuts?  Aaron: there have been high levels of investment recently: some institutions are set up to cope, others not, with the upcoming cuts.  In such a period, innovation and flexibility can be useful.  Liz Holman, from CBI, talked of re-engineering services.  Flexibility of funding by credit was one option she talked of, to introduce flexibility into the system.*  Mergers and collaborations were clearly on the agenda for institutions, too.  Phil argued that the current HE model is unsustainable.  Labour announced 20% cuts; the coalition govt announced 25%.  This could be worse, because it's not a protected service.  Charging fees of £7,000 or more will be unprecedented, since the Robbins report.  It requires a complete re-engineering.  Eg companies like Rolls Royce or other large engineering companies providing their own engineering courses.  HE in the UK is a fantastic product; but it needs radical overhaul for being fit for purpose for 21st century — and this is a challenge for HEA.  Dianne Willcocks pointed out that the cuts and recession will affect university partnerships, and also the economic background of our students coming to university.  There's a lot that needs to be done as regards learning in the workplace.  We must be cautious of mergers — they should not be forced marriages, and must be well-funded. 

 Question from the floor: shouldn't industry contribute more to HE than it does?  Liz Holman said there could be a case, if a business was coming into a university to shape a course.  Business cd also provide bursaries, etc.  Interesting that there was none of Phil's radical overhaul coming from the CBI rep — instead some comments about saving money by working in open plan offices… Dianne pointed out that targetting specific groups was important, especially regarding the FE/HE boundary.  Phil cited the biotech industry growing up around York University, and the way that St John also worked with York U. in the initiatives.  He dismissed shared services as an answer to cuts.  International markets — he thought that this was no longer an option — others were picking up on it and it was being saturated.  Instead, the UK ought to be plugged into a global student market.  Interesting point — needed more fleshing out…  Aaron argued that flexibility of access throughout a lifetime was essential — eg going to college instead of the expense of signing on.  Business contribution?  He said the UK training budget is 30 billion, and only 3% goes through the UK HE system.  And business has GOT to pay more (this before dashing off to another meeting…).  Applause.

In response to another question, Phil reiterated his re-engineering issue: apprenticeships, many other forms of work placements, etc — this needs to be rethought.  Not apprenticeships OR degrees, but apprenticeships AND degrees.  And he agreed with Aaron re lifelong flexibility.  

Another question: in the light of increased costs, how would the Panel persuade students that university was still worthwhile as a viable career path.  Dianne said — talk to the prizewinners last night, and cited her own career as an example of what university did for her.  Confident citizenship was another benefit.  Phil said: the evidence is there, in terms of increased earnings, health, etc.  He cited Teesside U. as an example of an institution that helped to turn around a local workforce.  

Question from floor: how do Universities develop skills in this new economic environment?  Liz Holman gave the CBI view, rather uninspiring.  Yet another: do we try to please students too much as customers?  Interesting question — Dianne saw the student experience as a partnership, not a customer relationship, at her university.  Phil: students deserve to know how many hours teaching they'll get, who they'll be taught by (lecturers?  student tutors?), and the type & amount of feedback.  There should be a contract between student and institution.  

All in all, some interesting points, but there seemed to be a lack of genuine innovative thinking and closely argued exemplars, albeit it's just a Panel session.  

*Reminds me of the 18th/19th century Scottish university, where students paid per course, as I understand it.  

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