What’s the point of university? What is higher education meant to provide that’s different from further education? And what shape should further education have in the big jigsaw puzzle of education after school?
These were some of the underlying themes in the British Academy’s debate on Perspectives on Education, bringing together a range of thinkers and talkers on a rainy summer lunchtime.
This particular session was focused on the relationship between those two sometimes distant cousins of the education sector, higher education and further education.
The first speaker, Marina Warner, writer and fellow of the British Academy, warned that universities were at risk of losing their intellectual rigour and creative curiosity and becoming dominated by a managerial culture based on a business model rather than scholarship.
She challenged a combination of raising tuition fees and lowering the threshold for what university was meant to be about. How does an ever-widening higher education sector remain something separate from training? If universities are spread too far and too thin will they lose their distinctiveness and flavour?
Marina Warner warned of a “hole in the intellectual ozone layer”.
This questioning of the identity of the university sector is now a topic that directly affects more people than ever before. In the weeks after this summer seminar, the results of this year’s A-levels were published – and once again there will be record numbers going to university. It’s likely that more than half a million young people will be taking up places.
To put that into perspective, more students will be entering university this autumn than were getting five good GCSEs a couple of decades ago. It’s been such a relentless year-on-year expansion that the scale of the change is easy to overlook.
The broadening borders of the higher education sector – and the political protection of funding for schools – raise questions about the long-term squeeze on further education. It’s the sector caught in the middle.
Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of large further education colleges, described the practical differences. These education sectors were defined by their funding – and it meant that further education was left with much less autonomy. They were dependent on the demands of often-changing government policy.
But she questioned how successfully vocational skills were being delivered by the current institutional landscape. Everyone might talk about the skills gap and the economic importance of higher skills, but where should such skills be taught? Vocational courses were going to be as important to some universities as traditional academic courses. But were universities the best place to provide the practical teaching for these hands-on skills?
Lynne Sedgmore asked whether we needed to re-invent the role of polytechnics. Could that be a role for some of the big further education colleges?
Many of these questions depend on political decision makers. And Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, shed some light on how such discussions were viewed from Whitehall.
He highlighted that further education was literally the poor relation, with colleges receiving substantially less per student funding than either schools or university.
Nick Hillman, a former special adviser to former universities minister David Willetts, told the audience another underlying factor was that the corridors of power were not filled with people who were familiar with the corridors of FE colleges.
Ministers and senior civil servant were more likely to be products of schools and universities than further education colleges – and so were their children. And such experiences provided an in-built empathy for the needs of the university sector.
Lynne Sedgemore picked up on this idea that politicians tended to act with deference towards higher education and indifference towards further education. And she warned that current budget pressures would mean mergers and reductions in the number of colleges.
Marina Warner pressed the argument that marketisation was gnawing away at the values of higher education.
It might have been a wet dog of day outside of Carlton House Terrace, but the debate inside showed that views on further and higher education remain far from cut and dried.
Sean Coughlan is BBC News education correspondent and chair of the British Academy lunchtime seminar.