Issue 6

IMAGINING THE FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION

By Ruchir Shah, Head of the Policy Department, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

A number of academics have recently reflected on the impact of possible Scottish independence on the future of Higher Education. Much of this has focused on the impact of a changed settlement for Scotland on the operating environment for Higher Education institutions. But in this article I would like to turn this round, and think instead about what we want Higher Education to be for in a future Scotland – and UK.

Higher Education is often a focal point in people's lives when they reflect on the world around them. This is an important space for the formation of free-thinking citizens. People will meet, often for the first time, very different people to those in their immediate community. It’s a major site of interaction between students, researchers and professionals from the host community, from other parts of the country and internationally. Higher Education is still one of the few arenas in society where people from different classes and social backgrounds genuinely mix.

But it's also a seedbed for civil society. This is the cradle for student movements, radical ideas and an important meeting place for those that want to create a fairer and more equitable society. For example, NUS Scotland’s, “Our Future, Our Fight” campaign saw thousands of students protest against the cuts to college budgets. In other countries, students and Higher Education institutions have been the focal points of social and constitutional change. Think about the massive campaign for women’s rights in India earlier this year, the Chinese and Arab student movements for democracy, the revolutions in former communist Eastern Europe. Repressive governments will often shut down the media; restrict the voice of non-government organisations and opposition political parties. However, the space for active dissent in their universities and colleges is less easy to control.

Higher Education is often a focal point in people's lives when they reflect on the world around them. This is an important space for the formation of free-thinking citizens.

I would therefore like to see Higher Education as part of our society, not just part of our economy. This requires a much more ambitious discussion about how Higher Education fits into the kind of society we want Scotland to be. Far too much debate has centred on how we can afford Higher Education, particularly when public finances are stretched. In this light Higher Education is only valued for its contribution to our future workforce. Yet can we even plan what will be the main economic drivers for jobs in 15-20 years’ time? Even businesses now look for people with the right attitudes and flexibility rather than just specific knowledge or qualifications.

How then can Higher Education play a role in building and improving society, engaging people in their communities, their country and the world? Can it help us create a new generation of thinkers and activists, able to look beyond their individual needs? Can we use it as a vehicle for enriching our society’s equality, diversity and culture? Can it complement the other important social building blocks such as early years, school, colleges, and apprenticeships and in other spheres in which we help people develop themselves as active citizens?

I believe it can. The sector already has a number of assets we can build on.

First, Higher Education institutions in the UK are well connected with each other. Scotland alone punches above its weight with a number of internationally recognised institutions and collaborations that belie its population size. This allows a free flow of ideas between institutions. But we need to free these ideas. Far too much remains locked away behind subscription journals and obscure technical language. Perhaps more can be made of the digital presence of our institutions, not just study materials, but analysis by students as well as research and teaching staff made available online for all to engage with.

… Higher Education institutions need to reduce not reinforce inequality in society, particularly socio-economic inequality. In Scotland, current approaches to tackle this through legislation and widening access agreements are quite toothless.

Second, Higher Education institutions are closely connected with the economies of the cities and locales in which they are based – indeed, they bring a fresh batch of consumers and temporary workers to the local economy each year. But how can we embed the institutions more closely within the social fabric of these locales? For example, could more be made of university buildings and grounds in hosting the activities of local community groups; from playgroups and meeting spaces to sports groups? And rather than a programme of short evening courses and occasional open day festivals, how can we make some of the libraries and labs permanently open to the public?

There are of course a number of challenges.

We have a very competitive approach to research funding and government subsidy, and an obsession with the UK Research Councils’ ‘Research Excellence Framework’ ratings. Brand is important for many well-known universities, and this can work against any wider engagement that might put this at risk. At a time when Higher Education has been squeezed financially, and yet remains seen as over-resourced by many, there is a real danger the sector will entrench into running as businesses first and social, cultural and education institutions second.

Secondly, Higher Education institutions need to reduce not reinforce inequality in society, particularly socio-economic inequality. In Scotland, current approaches to tackle this through legislation and widening access agreements are quite toothless.  England’s new ‘Office For Fair Access’ can sanction institutions for not widening access enough but it is too early to say whether this approach works. How is it that colleges are much more equitable, and accessible to their local communities compared to Higher Education institutions? We may need more direct intervention. A good example of this is the award winning StrathGuides, a Student Association-run initiative that sees university students go into schools across Glasgow to help pupils with little background of entering Higher Education with ‘university survival skills’. But we also need more work to engage mature students as currently the whole system is still designed with 17-21 year olds in mind, when many people are better prepared to invest the time and resources required later in life.

In ancient times, Higher Education institutions were the great learning centres of the day. Perhaps we could return to this concept and revisit the social and transformative role of Higher Education. Rather than getting too preoccupied with the impact of constitutional, funding or regulatory change, here is an opportunity to rethink the role we want higher education to play in a future Scotland - and UK. It falls to us to think proactively about shaping the future of Higher Education within a bigger picture of the kind of society we want to live in.

By Ruchir Shah, Head of the Policy Department, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

Issue 6

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