Britain’s universities are facing an increasing number of challenges. It now means that the need to contemplate changes and diversification are possibly more necessary than ever. The discussions surrounding the immigration status of students and faculty in the aftermath of recent political events remains ongoing, together with the current uncertainty post-March 2019 concerning the status of European scholars – the implications of which will also be felt in areas such as research funding. Moreover, the rising cost of tuition fees means that students have higher expectations of what they should receive from a university education. Therefore, what are the things that universities could consider, going forward, to prepare for the challenges of the future? The factors below are by no means an exhaustive list but are aspects worthy of consideration.
Reasserting the importance of expert knowledge
While recent attacks on expert knowledge and intellectualism have become more common, especially in some recent political discourse, universities continue to play a vital role in equipping the nation to deal with the challenges brought by an interconnected and globalized knowledge economy. In this respect, universities make a vital contribution to the labour market. However, many British universities are entrenched in many centuries of history, within which come several customs and traditions. For some, this defines the ‘university experience’, and has served to place British universities as some of the world’s leading institutions. For others, it is sometimes seen as an obstacle that serves to hold back important advancements and act as a barrier between enforcing the relevance between a university education and the so-called ‘real life’ experience of the workplace. The reality is that the expertise gained from a university education does provide high-level skills that are required for the job market, but the connection is not always explicitly made, or efforts are not sufficient to ensure the appropriate vocational experience is attained along the academic journey. Nevertheless, the importance of expert knowledge is unlikely to dissipate, and it is vital that universities continue to assert the importance of further education, and its importance to the nation’s development.
Focus on employability
There are options that could be explored in this area that can build on the current framework but also enhance the current position from which universities approach the issue. First, British universities could explore the possibility of creating connections with employers to ensure that students are equipped with both the academic and vocational skills required to land a job after graduation. Examples from countries such as China are useful to explore here, where some courses require working experience, normally in the form of an internship, as part of the criteria for graduation. In so doing, the value of a university education is asserted to the employer, while the student is learning essential skills to transition from full-time education to the workplace. This could be incorporated as part of the Teaching Excellence Framework, where a component could be introduced to ensure that universities focus on graduate employability.
A student-led experience?
In Britain, students are now paying higher fees than ever before. This has fostered numerous tensions among both students and academics. Aside from the financial burden of meeting the high fees, and the concerns that this will not land the graduate with the ‘dream job’ after their studies, many students have expressed their desire for the higher fees to include more (and different) contact time with their tutors. This desire normally comes in the form of smaller group teaching as a replacement for larger group lectures. For academics, many of whom are burdened with research targets and several administrative tasks, the option of increasing the teaching workload is not feasible. This has inevitably led to many graduate students undertaking seminar teaching, freeing up more senior staff for research, taking weekly lectures and discharging other departmental duties. The biggest task for British universities now is how to meet the growing desire of students while also meeting the numerous targets imposed on them by government. The future could entail the provision of smaller class sizes, but this may come at the expense of higher student fees, as universities struggle to meet the demands of rising costs.
Many universities are now focusing on internationalisation as a way of enhancing not only their power in a global market, but also as a means of expanding their network as a means of increasing income streams. As the research community is becoming more globalised, the importance of international collaboration is possibly more important than ever before. Students from Asia, especially China and Japan, are a large market for British universities that continues to be explored. The ‘brand’ that continues to be extolled by Britain as a leading country for higher education is one that continues to attract but is one that needs to be maintained by keeping up with the challenges of the present. Britain’s education system has a long history of success, but it is meeting growing challenges from the USA and Canada. Adapting to meet the challenges of the present will be key to ensure the foreign market for attracting researchers and students can be maintained in the future,
What does this mean in reality?
The expectations of students, and the requirements for faculty have changed exponentially in the last 15 years. Now, faculty members are required to obtain externally-funded research awards for their work and provide research that conforms to a set of different metrics. Students are paying higher fees, and thus expect to get more from their university education. While the rising fees have given rise to the criticism that university education could return to the days when higher education was the purview of the elite few, the political and social climate within which a university now operates has also changed to an extent that the expectation on universities, and their contribution to society, has also completely changed. Thus, the future appears to be to ensure that the relevance of a university education is communicated more effectively, while also demonstrating that a university has a broader function beyond purely providing students with academic knowledge. While the idea of attracting additional stakeholders into the university system who could potentially influence the trajectory of academic education is a suggestion that many academics would baulk at, it would appear that to ensure the relevance and position of universities are maintained for the long-term, an evolutionary approach to the future learning, teaching and research direction will be necessary to ensure this.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SearchHigher or Warwick Employment Group.