In his first major speech on higher education since taking responsibility for it under the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), Lord Mandelson today outlined his views on the essential issues facing universities ahead of an HE Framework on the future shape of the sector that he will publish later this year.
To an audience of university vice chancellors and representatives from across the HE sector, he emphasised the crucial role universities play in building a stronger UK economy and responded to some of the key challenges of social mobility raised in Alan Milburn’s report ‘Unleashing Aspiration’ on access to the professions published last week.
Ahead of an independent review on university tuition fees due later this year, Lord Mandelson said the central questions around how higher education is funded cannot be separated from the issue of access to a university education for those from poorer backgrounds.
Speaking at Birkbeck College, London, he said:
“Over the last decade we as a country have invested hugely in our universities. We have actively pursued a policy of widening access. We have put knowledge and science at the centre of our vision of our economic future, and protected its funding at unprecedented levels.
“We have instituted a fees system that has, in my view, been a radical and signal success in strengthening the resources available to universities without sacrificing accessibility to students.
“But we are obviously facing an incredibly difficult decade of rebuilding growth and future strengths in Britain. There are tough decisions ahead. Our graduates face the toughest job market for years. And ultimately those big twentieth-century higher education questions are still with us. For what end? For whom? Paid for how?”
Outlining the key role of universities on the economy, Lord Mandelson said: :
“It seems to me that in defining the economic role of universities we come up with a set of linked challenges all of which are tied to the critical role of universities at the heart of a knowledge economy.
“Equipping people as rounded intellectual beings but also giving them the skills they will need in a global economy.
“Turning more of the knowledge that is generated in UK universities into jobs and growth, especially by bringing businesses and universities together to collaborate.
“These are management challenges for individual universities; but they are a strategic challenge for the UK as a whole. The diversity of mission statements and the autonomy of universities in defining precisely how they serve their students and customers is clearly vital. But there is also a need for a collective strategic vision for the sector and its role in our national economic life. That is the balance we will aim to strike in the Higher Education Framework.”
On social mobility and Alan Milburn’s report, Lord Mandelson said:
“A university education remains the gateway to the professions and a ticket to higher lifetime earnings on average. So I think we have to ask: why, for all the work in the sector and all the seriousness with which it has tackled this question are we still making only limited progress in widening access to Higher Education to young people from poorer backgrounds – especially at our most selective universities?
“We clearly need to look again at how, and how early we identify and engage potential candidates for university. I am attracted to the idea of stronger links between the professions, universities and schools - work experience, early mentoring, clearer lines of communication about what preparing for university and a career in the professions means at every stage of secondary education.
“I agree with Alan Milburn that as well as the usual criteria of standardized testing, there is a strong case for using other more contextual benchmarks for talent spotting that look at the way candidates have exploited the opportunities open to them in their lives. Some universities in the UK are using these approaches. There is good evidence that they work. And any Vice Chancellor that takes a broad and innovative approach to identifying talent will have the firm backing of the government.”
Lord Mandelson made it clear that he would not pre-empt the independent review of fees planned for launch in the autumn. He added:
“I do not believe that we can separate the issues of fees, access and student support. Any institution that wants to use greater costs to the student to fund excellence must face an equal expectation to ensure that its services remain accessible to more than just those with the ability to pay.
“Whatever funding mix for higher education we develop, there must always be a link between what an institution charges and its performance in widening access and supporting those without the ability to pay.”