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Government plans mark a seismic shift in higher education policy

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Higher education is not broken - it just needs to fix its diversity problem

Reviewing the past week's higher education news, Rachel Hewitt, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute, takes issue with claims that UK higher education is "broken" and sees encouraging signs that it is addressing issues over diversity.


This week we’ve seen the case made again that a university education is not worth it, this time from Tony Blair’s son. Euan Blair, who runs an organisation focused on getting school leavers into apprenticeships, described the current higher education system as ‘broken’.

This to me always feels like the easiest argument in the higher education space to disprove. It’s not that apprenticeships aren’t important. Alternative routes to higher education should be available and seen as a viable alternative (and of course some universities themselves offer degree and higher apprenticeships). It’s not that universities are without flaws and areas for improvement. But a university education still provides great opportunities for many people, and demand for places continues to rise. While we haven’t yet hit Tony Blair’s fifty per cent target for young people in higher education, if current trends continue we will need 300,000 more places by 2030. Young people are not turning away from higher education.

One of the clearest pieces of evidence for why the system is not broken comes from students themselves. In the HEPI/AdvanceHE Student Academic Experience Survey, we ask students whether, if they had their time again, they would make any changes. Two thirds say they would make no changes at all, with another quarter saying they would still go into higher education. Only 4 per cent say they would have preferred to do an apprenticeship. Increasingly more students are also endorsing their experience as offering value for money, with 41 per cent of students in the survey saying they were getting good or very good value for money, compared to 29 per cent who said they had poor/very poor value for money.

This is not to say universities are without faults. One of the areas where universities need to be doing more is diversifying their intake of students. In this space, to date, Scotland has been ahead of the rest of the UK. This week it was reported that Scottish universities have almost hit the Government’s targets on admissions of students from deprived backgrounds two years ahead of the schedule. While they’re not directly comparable, it is shocking to think that on the current trajectory it will take highly selective universities in England a century to meet the Government’s targets. Clearly, there is work to be done.

This is a particularly timely moment to be reflecting on this, as this week Oxbridge offer places to prospective students. Positive steps have been made, as for the first time this year nearly 70 per cent of places at Oxford have been offered to students from state schools. Equally important in diversifying these institutions is the news that 22 per cent of the 2019 intake at Oxford were from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. While there is still progress to be made, it’s clear trends are moving in the right direction and the Office for Student’s access and participation plans are focusing minds.

The evidence shows that universities offer most students a positive experience. This does not mean other options should not be available to school leavers, but pitting universities against alternative routes, such as apprenticeships, benefits no one. What is critically important is that universities continue to make good progress on diversifying the students they take in, meaning students from all backgrounds are given the opportunity to access higher education and the benefits it can bring them.