Remodelling Higher Education in a Changing World

Higher Education August 07, 2017

Like many established institutions, higher education (HE) providers are struggling to work out how to engage with a changing world order. The rise of populist movements is challenging some of the fundamental concepts on which HE is built. HE providers across the world are being challenged to prove their worth to society. While these challenges threaten some of what HE does, in other ways they are welcome. They are essential if providers and those who work and lead them are going to give equitable access to HE the prioritisation it requires, and place it alongside research, income generation and teaching. In order for this to happen, a debate regarding the very purpose of HE is required and the nature of the where and how it is delivered.

For those who believe that HE access should be more equitable, the way to go is to start by questioning the very public mission of HE. What is it and what should it be for? There is a business case for extending access to HE. As participation rates approach saturation amongst higher socioeconomic groups in richer countries, as will likely happen one day across all countries, even though that day may be far away, the best route to growth will be recruiting students from presently unserved communities. This will eventually motivate the majority of providers to pay attention to students from such communities.

Fundamental shifts in structure and culture will be required however to adequately serve the different needs of such students HE providers need to take practical actions to make access to their institutions more equitable. The first action is to take a share of the responsibility for what happens to students from unserved populations before they enter HE. Providers need to share their human and financial resources in working with schools to help such groups achieve the grades necessary to benefit from HE. HE institutions in only a handful of countries are systematically working with schools and young people from 11/12 onwards through using their students as mentors and incentivising their academics to give lectures or workshops to young people. Campuses are being opened up for summer schools and after-school clubs. Providers have to be proactive in convincing those from low-income and marginalised communities that HE is as much for them as for the affluent. Examples of how to do this exist – in particular in the UK, Australia and the USA.

It is also necessary that HE providers recognise that students from under-represented groups who enter HE are different. Widening access does not mean diluting quality which is why the afore-mentioned outreach work is so important. The aim is to support students to achieve their potential rather than simply adhering to student admission quotas. In order for this to happen, students still need specific support, which may be in the form of continued mentoring or buddying, additional tuition and the availability of advisory service on financial or pastoral matters. Examples of such holistic support exist, e.g. at the University of Cape Town in South Africa through the work of the Education Development Unit in the Faculty of Commerce which has reduced black students drop-out rates by over 50%, and the Education Opportunity Programme (EOP) at the University of Berkeley.

It is also crucial that students from all social backgrounds have the opportunity to benefit from the transformative potential of HE through study abroad programmes. International student mobility is mainly the preserve of the affluent student. Some large scholarship programmes exist but it is HE providers who should be far more pro-active by offering shorter study abroad opportunities which are integrated into existing degree programmes. Students from low income or excluded communities should be able to take part in specialised employability workshops and receive advice from employers who can provide specific internship and other support for such learners.

More deep-rooted changes may be required to really open up HE for everyone. It needs to become much more flexible and differentiated across space and time. The vast majority of what is delivered as HE across the world is based on models designed to serve the minority of the population. Large physical campuses educating young people for 3 to 4 years will, and should, continue to be a major part of what constitutes HE, but they must become only one part of a more diverse offer that includes combinations of face-to-face and virtual learning, shorter qualifications and smaller, more locally based providers. The case for such remodelling brings us back to the need for change in defining the purpose of HE and the nature of the HE provider or university. New missions, values and cultures will need to be constructed which make access and participation central rather than peripheral. This will be neither fast nor easy, but essential if HE is ever to serve the many rather than the few.