Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Professor John Brennan, Centre for Higher Education Research and Information (CHERI), Open University


  1.  The Centre for Higher Education Research and Information (CHERI) conducts research on higher education policy and on the broad relationships between higher education and society, both in the UK and internationally. This submission draws on this research and, in particular, on the following three ongoing projects:

    —  What is learned at university? The social and organisational mediation of university learning (funded by the Economic and Social Research Council).

    —  The flexible graduate in the knowledge society—a European study of graduate employment (funded by the European Commission and the Higher Education Funding Council for England).

    —  Higher education in Europe in 2010 and beyond:  responding to economic and social pressures (funded by the European Science Foundation).

  2.  These projects are ongoing and the submission is not able to report on definitive conclusions at this stage, but it is able to reflect some emerging findings and also to draw on an extensive experience of national and international higher education research conducted over several decades by the author. Brief details of this work have already been submitted to the Committee.

  3.  I want in particular to attempt to draw attention to some of the features of UK higher education which are distinctive when compared with other (mainly European) systems and to consider the balance of advantage/disadvantage which might arise from this distinctiveness. Attention is also drawn to features of UK higher education which have undergone considerable change in recent years.


Differentiation and diversity

  4.  The higher education research literature frequently employs the terms "elite" and "mass" to describe the growth of higher education systems in virtually all developed countries over the last two decades. The terminology was coined by the American sociologist Martin Trow in the mid 1970s and included a third stage of "universal" higher education to refer to the kinds of participation rates that are now planned or achieved in the different parts of the UK. Mass and universal systems are frequently seen to be differentiated systems. It is also worth remembering that Trow did not see them as necessarily sequential stages. Elements of each type can co-exist within expanded systems.

  5.  Within the UK, a lot of concern seems to have been devoted over the last 10 years to ensuring the protection of elite higher education against the effects of expansion of the system as a whole. Research selectivity plays its part in this as does the popularity of institutional league tables and differential institutional funding. The UK system would generally be regarded as exhibiting the features of "vertical differentiation", marked by an emphasis on reputational hierarchy. This contrasts with the "horizontal differentiation" found more commonly in continental Europe where the emphasis is more on functional difference, possibly marked by different institutional types or sectors. Horizontal differentiation is generally associated with relationships of co-operation between institutions whereas vertical differentiation is associated with competition between institutions.

  6.  The reputational differentiation within UK higher education may be a reflection of a greater focus on processes of "elite reproduction" whereby supposedly "superior" institutions and experiences are reserved for the education of relatively advantaged social groups. This may limit the opportunities provided by expanded higher education systems to offer greater opportunities for social mobility to historically disadvantaged groups. Rankings and league tables, from this perspective, are essential mechanisms for mass higher education to continue to play this role in elite reproduction. It of course all plays back into the school system and the ever more creative strategies employed by middle class parents to purchase social advantage for their children via perceived differences in the education system.

  7.  To some extent, the policy choice is between a vertically segmented and relatively closed higher education system geared to the reproduction during early adulthood of existing status differences in society and a functionally and horizontally segmented but more open system providing opportunities for mobility and personal transformation at all stages of the life-course. The latter would be associated with considerable movement of students between institutional types and sectors. The former would be associated with a separation of students between different types of higher education according to factors associated with social, ethnic and educational background. To a considerable extent, the two possibilities currently co-exist in UK higher education although with some degree of tension between them.

The student experience

  8.  We know from many recent studies that a majority of full-time undergraduates combine study with paid employment during term-time. Many also combine it with significant domestic responsibilities. There are institutional and social class differences in the extent of the out-of-class responsibilities of undergraduates and also in the extent to which they are likely to remain living at home while in higher education. A lot of higher education debate tends to assume the classic "full-time" student living away from home for the first time prior to entering the labour market. But a majority of today's students live busy lives and possess multiple identities. Identities which historically have been "sequential" (eg student, worker, parent) are now experienced in parallel and may occur at different stages in the life-course.

  9.  Additionally, the many part-time students—undergraduate and postgraduate—often are not given the attention they deserve in policy discussion. In many ways, a distinction between (i) full-time students on full-time courses, (ii) part-time students on full-time courses, and (iii) part-time students on part-time courses, may be more helpful that a straight full/part-time split. But probably more helpful is to remove the distinction altogether (following most of the rest of Europe). This would allow students the flexibility to alter the intensity of their study over the duration of their courses, to better accomodate the pressures of the other things going on in their lives. Opportunities for greater flexibility are also afforded by the introduction of new pedagogies, use of ICT, modularity and changing modes of assessment. These are altering teacher-learner relations and increasingly take the higher education experience outside the walls of the higher education institution.

  10.  Pointing to the variety and diversity of student experiences today is not to suggest that some types of higher education experience are superior to others. There may be a need for society to better understand and value the newer kinds of higher education experiences, especially if these differences are not going to underpin a new form of inequality—between the classic "full-timers" and the rest. There is certainly a case for reviewing the distinction between full-time and part-time study and also the duration of programmes of study in order to take full account of the considerable variations which now exist in the social contexts of learning.

Higher education and employment

  11.  In common with graduates from other countries, UK graduates continue to enjoy favourable employment opportunities. But there are some distinctive features:  UK graduates, according to our research:

    —  appear less likely (than graduates from other European countries) to make use in employment of the knowledge and skills they acquired in higher education;

    —  relatedly, are less likely to be in jobs for which their degree subject was an essential entry pre-requisite;

    —  are more likely to receive education and training support from their subsequent employers (and to receive more of it); and

    —  are more likely to value their higher education for its contribution to their personal development and its long-term career benefits rather than as an effective preparation for a first job after graduation.

  12.  The short duration of the English first degree, the different subject balance (less vocational programmes), the less intensive nature of study and the more limited use of work placements, may combine to provide a different division of labour between higher education and employers in the education and training of new graduates than is found in other parts of Europe. There may be advantages from this in terms of flexibility within the labour market but there is also a possibility that higher education is being used predominantly as a screening/selection device rather than as a genuine contributor to greater productivity in the workplace.

Shifting boundaries between higher education and other social institutions

  13.  The diffusion of knowledge creation across all social institutions as reflected in such concepts as "mode 2 science" and the "triple helix" creates interesting challenges for the long-term role of higher education within the so-called "knowledge economy", both in terms of its contribution to research and knowledge creation and in its effects upon teaching and the curriculum. With regards the latter, a further growth in the importance of workplace learning of a variety of sorts may be expected. These are likely to bring to the fore currently problematic issues of control, support and certification. With regards research, as boundaries between university and other institutional settings become more blurred, the continuing relevance of conventional notions of research outputs as embodied in the research assessment exercises may need to be questioned.

  14.  Open access to knowledge via the web may also suggest a reshaping of the roles of higher education institutions and of individual academics, possibly with greater emphasis given to the certification of knowledge acquired outside the walls of higher education rather than knowledge transmitted within them.


Bologna and European harmonisation

  15.  The effects of the Bologna agreement have been given much less attention in the UK than in most other European countries. This partly stems from the perceived adoption of the Anglo-Saxon model of qualifications across the rest of Europe. However, the belief that it implies no real changes to UK higher education may be misplaced.

  16.  It is already clear that the implementation of the two stage bachelors/masters model is controversial in many countries with the bachelors qualification receiving little credibility with either employers or intending students. It seems likely that, initially at least, the bachelors qualification will be viewed only as a staging post on the way to a (two year) masters qualification. In these circumstances, it will be difficult to maintain a privileged status for the UK bachelors degree (possible in the past when lack of comparability with other European systems could be claimed). With the harmonisation of qualifications, it remains to be seen what the effects will be of harmonising the UK first degree with a qualification that lacks acceptance in certain other parts of Europe. The credibility of foundation degrees and accelerated bachelors degrees may become even more of an issue.

  17.  None of this might actually matter insofar insofar as national labour markets remain largely distinct. But if the relatively short duration of the UK first degree—coupled with the less intensive experience of study—is associated with lower levels of academic achievement, there may be implications for the quality of human capital supplied to UK employers. It should be remembered that the short duration of the UK first degree used to be justified in part by reference to the specialised nature of A levels, involving the claim that the first degree was effectively commenced during the sixth form. Such a claim becomes difficult to maintain when so many degrees are not a direct progression from specialist A levels but are commenced "ab initio" on entry to higher education. The greater role played by employers in the education and training of new graduates in the UK referred to in above may be a consequence. There are also implications for the provision of postgraduate qualifications, both after the first degree and subsequently throughout the life-course.


  18.  It has not been possible to present detailed evidence and references for the comments made above. But if there are particular points where elaboration would be helpful, this can be provided subsequently.

  19.  Debates about the future of higher education tend to be debates between interested parties and the role of the Committee in inserting a consideration of the "public good" is an important one. In an important book written over ten years ago, Peter Scott noted that the UK had created a mass system of higher education but retained an elite mentality for thinking about it.[1] In some ways, this reflects the underlying ideology of "meritocracy" which has characterised political debate about higher education in recent years. Unequal treatment of individuals on the basis of their different educational qualifications is regarded as legitimate in ways that other forms of unequal treatment are not. But this requires a belief that qualifications are themselves unequal and the construction of a reputational hierarchy of higher education institutions. Such a hierarchy may be functional if the goal is to create and legitimise difference. But there may be dysfunctional elements, for example in the emphasis upon the institution attended rather than what has been learned as the basis for graduate recruitment. For all the rhetoric given to debates about employability, UK higher education appears to be less well-tuned to the needs of the labour market (at least in the short-term) than some of its continental European partners.

  20.  In terms of numbers, the UK already has high participation rates in higher education. But if account is taken of the short duration of higher education—ie participants receive "less" of it—then participation looks rather lower. It is paradoxical, therefore, that so much attention has been given to the introduction of additional short-cycle programmes when the "gap", in terms of international comparison, may be more at the postgraduate level. The length and character of the UK first degree seems to result in a larger role for employers in education and training but whether this division of labour is optimum—for employers, students or society—is another matter.

February 2007

1   Scott, P, 1994, The Meanings of Mass Higher Education, Buckingham: Open University Press. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 9 August 2007