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In search of new ideas on Britain’s higher education landscape. By Daniel Harper

by on June 29, 2012

News reports abound with stories of increasing numbers of UK students looking abroad for their higher education, in particular to Europe and countries such as Holland, which offer cheaper tuition fees and a range of benefits to EU citizens. Whilst such an option clearly has its merits, it is perhaps more importantly a sign that we should be looking towards Europe for new ideas to revitalise our out-dated education system.

Britain’s university system finds itself approaching its critical mass, with funding problems forcing dramatic fee increases, whilst recent graduates find themselves out of work and increasingly cynical about their prospects. It is at our peril that we continue to focus higher education in Britain solely upon the traditional university path seen by so many as the only ‘real’ route to an advanced qualification, social mobility and open doors later in life.

New Labour’s famous 1997 target to achieve a 50% participation rate of young people in university education is still seen by many as a benchmark of a functioning HE system and a socially mobile society. As of 2010-11, the actual figure stood at 47%, boosted by year-on-year increases in the quota of university places available. Success stories in other countries, however, suggest that we should instead be diversifying the system, rather than putting all of our eggs in one overloaded basket.

This drive to increase participation in university education creates several problems. The debates and protests over the tuition fee increases that have raged across our TV screens and university campuses signify one of them – the problem of how to fund a continually expanding system. As Gordon Brown found in 2009, the increase in university places in pursuit of the elusive 50%, deemed the best way to improve education levels and economic competitiveness in Britain, left continuous black holes in government university funding. The result was an unsustainable system that needed to be rectified by dramatic fee hikes.

The same policy narrows the field of alternatives for pupils and students seeking to enter higher education. Whilst many still view it as taboo to say so, it is not a sin to admit that not everyone is destined for academia. We need to rid alternative, vocational qualifications of their stigma by improving the number, structure and variety on offer, to ensure that there are suitable alternatives for anyone who wishes to stay in education past the age of 18. Continuing to expand university education not only causes funding problems, but creates institutions of dubious quality, which attempt to adhere to the university framework whilst making the degrees on offer suitable for those who may not have chosen university at all in the presence of other options.

Unemployment amongst disillusioned graduates who were sold the idea of a university education as a ‘golden ticket’ to job opportunities exemplifies yet another issue. The labour market finds itself flooded with graduates and an imbalance between the type of work available and the education and skill sets that those in search of work possess.

Other countries have been able to match the demands of their economy with their labour supply by offering a tier of choices at the end of compulsory education. The German system for example, offers three main choices post-18. Of course, they still have traditional universities (albeit with almost non-existent fees), but these are complemented by Fachhochschulen (universities of applied science) and Duale-Ausbildungen (literally a ‘Dual Education’, the rough equivalent of an apprenticeship).

Graduation from a University of Applied Science opens many of the same opportunities as from a standard university, but the courses follow different structures, focusing on practical applications and the ‘what’ and ‘how’, rather than the ‘why’. Furthermore, students are required to undertake one or more compulsory internships as part of the course, giving an opportunity to apply knowledge in a practical context. Duale-Ausbildungen are perhaps the model which we should learn most from: another interesting fusion of study and work, organised by the German Chamber of Commerce in partnership with businesses and vocational institutes. Students spend semesters rotating between work and study as part of a carefully coordinated programme, for a period of up to 4 years, by which time they are better prepared than many UK university graduates upon receiving their degrees.

It is time that our Higher Education system, which has remained largely unchanged for decades, was brought into the 21st century to offer quality and variety in line with the needs of our students and the demands of our economy. Courses and systems which offer closer cooperation between educational institutions and the business sectors which will absorb their graduates are necessary, as are alternatives to our reliance on university-based tertiary education. Instead of pushing to increase the amount of students on the books at our universities, our government should instead be promoting and redesigning apprenticeships in the UK, whilst planting the seeds for a more tailored tertiary education for anyone who should desire it.

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