Flow of Ideas
Uninspiring Towers: Higher Education Futures in the UK

Glenn Rikowski, London, 1st August 2008


The UK Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) is currently undertaking a ‘review of higher education in 2008 in advance of the review of the operation of variable tuition fees’ that will take place in 2009 (UUK, 2008, p.2). This article explores a report (Brown et al, 2008) written for the Universities UK’s (UUK) submission to the DIUS review. The report is part of the UUK’s ‘Size and Shape of Higher Education’ project. According to Turner (2008), the report ‘underlines the extent to which higher education could be transformed by the web’. Furthermore, noted Turner, due to the rise of mass higher education systems in China and India, higher education institutions (HEIs) in the UK could lose out in the lucrative international students market. Slowness or failure to adapt by UK universities could result in merger or closure. In addition, says Turner, the report by Brown et al (2008) indicated that some failing institutions might be taken over by the private sector.

Dire Assumptions

The ‘Size and Shape’ report (Brown et al, 2008) aimed to ‘look into the implications of the projected demographic changes and the policies it might call for to assist institutions as they manage their student markets in the face of those demographic changes’ (p.15). It aimed ‘to assist universities’ so they could respond to changes in higher education markets. Methodologically, the research underpinning the report is interesting. It was based on demographic analysis, using official statistics, first and foremost, but was supplemented by ‘a series of three seminars based on a detailed analysis of three key drivers of the higher education system’ (Ibid.): funding, competition and employer engagement. The final element was ‘an externally facilitated scenario planning event’ – with discussions from the seminars feeding into the formation of three scenarios. These scenarios were: ‘slow adaptation to change’, a ‘market driven and competitive’ scenario and a scenario geared to ‘employer-driven flexible learning’ (pp.11-12). The three scenarios were designed to capture the size and shape of higher education in the UK over a 20-year period to 2027. The pertinent demographic projections are summarised in Table 1 (Brown et al, 2008, p.6).

The assumptions underpinning the three scenarios are restrictive. Three assumptions are especially significant: first, that there will not be ‘an increase in the level of public funding for teaching and learning because of other pressures on the public purse’ (p.11); secondly, that ‘the delivery of higher education will have been changed significantly by developments in communication and digital technologies, but to a different degree in each scenario’ (Ibid.); and thirdly that ‘there will some increase in the engagement of employers with higher education teaching and learning’ though this varies across scenarios. The first assumption implies that UK HEIs will have to fund any expansion either from asking students to pay higher fees, getting employers to financially support students to a higher level, or by recruiting more international students. This last strategy is put in doubt by the report, as it envisages that countries such as India and China are busy building up their own HEIs, thus reducing the attractiveness of their students studying in the UK. China may become a net importer of students during the scenario-building period. Furthermore, the report rules out any significant financial contribution by employers regarding student fees, noting caustically that:

“The Leitch scenario of a substantial increase in demand for highly skilled people driven by employers seeking to be world class was seen as at best a partial guide to the future and at worst positively misleading. All the evidence was that most UK employers were poor at investing in people and that demand for high level skills was driven mainly by innovation on which UK employers had a similarly poor record” (p.29 – original emphasis; on the Leitch Report see Rikowski, 2007).

Given UK employers’ historical shortcomings regarding training workers the ‘employment engagement’ seminar folk and Brown et al (2008) were justified in thinking little further student fee support would come from that quarter.

It seems that any future expansion of UK higher education student numbers is likely to come from either students paying a greater proportion of the costs of their learning through fees, or through increased productivity. It is in relation to the latter that the second assumption – more IT and communications technology – comes in. Brown et al (2008) seek to justify the increased use of ICT as an assumption guiding their scenario-building on the basis that students are keen on e-learning. They point to a need for staff to be re-skilled so that they can meet new learning approaches of IT-savvy students. But are students demanding more e-learning? Brown et al (2008) provide no evidence. Furthermore, research I have undertaken with Neil Southwell at the University of Northampton, on Education Studies students in the School of Education, suggests that they are reasonably happy with current levels of IT learning support; but what they really want is more small group and one-to-one tuition time. The drive for more ICT-based learning in Brown et al’s scenarios seems more to do with increasing productivity than with demand for more e-learning by students.

Bad Scenarios

On the basis of these dire or shaky assumptions, what do the scenarios throw up? Here I can only give brief outlines. ‘Scenario 1: Slow Adaptation to Change’ (pp.33), yields ‘increased cost pressures, continued government regulation of fees [as opposed to a fees free-for-al] and sharp demographic decline’ (Ibid.) There is a tight market with varied efforts to recruit international students. Some institutions might reduce fees and quality in order to compete (with some reducing entry requirements). In addition, ‘some institutions become unviable’ (p.11). Unpopular subjects are scrapped, and the reputation of UK HEIs plummets. This scenario suggests something more radical is required.

In ‘Scenario 2: Market-Driven and Competitive’ (p.34), neoliberal and marketising trends prevail. This heralds public/private partnerships in mega e-learning projects, niche marketing and private providers being let loose with degree awarding powers. Finally:

“The publicly funded sector proves less attractive to students and employers than the private sector leading to unfilled funded places; and a small number of elite institutions seek to secede from the publicly funded sector” (p.11).

This scenario fits with the Julius Report published a few weeks ago (see Rikowski, 2008) which explores possibilities for increased private sector delivery of public services – including educational services.

‘Scenario 3: Employer-Driven Flexible Learning’ (p.36) is aimed at giving employers what they say they want; it constitutes the ‘triumph of employer-led demand for part-qualifications’ (p.12). Students get degrees through a national IT-intensive credit and accumulation system that adds modules (on an individual and self-financed basis) to those demanded and paid for by employers. Some of the consequences of this scenario include:

“Private providers cherry-picking lucrative vocational provision; the take over of failing institutions by the private sector; and extreme stratification of the higher education system (p.12) … [including]… a small group of elite institutions with high fees, strong research and significant numbers of international students” (p.37).

Thus: for scenarios 2 and 3, an increased role for the private sector is envisaged.

Uninspiring Towers

All three scenarios in Brown et al (2008) paint uninspiring and depressing futures for UK higher education. The report avoids radical, progressive and interesting alternatives. Its assumptions are mixtures of conservatism, neoliberalism, marketisation and commodification-enhancement, with business and IT providing ‘dynamic’ elements. The question of what students and lecturers want from HEIs is relegated in favour of universities merely reacting to demographic trends, market developments, employers’ labour power needs and technological change. UK higher education futures are cast in the shadow of these insipid determinisms.


Brown, N., Bekhradnia, B., Boorman, S., Brickwood, A., Clark, T. & Ramsden, B. (2008) The Future Size and Shape of the Higher Education Sector in the UK: Threats and Opportunities, Research Report for Universities UK, prepared by Nigel Brown Associates, Launched at the House of Commons, 8th July, London: Universities UK: http://bookshop.universitiesuk.ac.uk/downloads/Size_and_shape2.pdf

Rikowski, G. (2007) A Capital-friendly Culture for Further Education in the UK, 17th November, London, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=A%20Capital%20Friendly%20Culture%20for%20Further%20Education

Rikowski, G. (2008) Outsourcing public Services - with special reference to education, 26th July, London, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Outsourcing%20Public%20Services

Turner, D. (2008) Web could end traditional degree, Financial Times, 10th July, at: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/9874489e-4e16-11dd-820e-000077b07658.html

UUK (2008) Report assesses impact of demographic changes for universities, Media Release, Universities UK, 10th July, online at: http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/Newsroom/Media-Releases/Pages/Report-assesses-impact-of-demographic-changes-for-universities.aspx

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