A contribution to Chancellor Sir Richard Lambert’s Warwick Commission
NIACE is delighted to contribute to the Warwick Commission on the future role of the University of Warwick in Coventry, Warwickshire and the wider region. We are particularly pleased to see such wide-ranging consideration of the future role of Warwick as a major HEI across the initial areas of the Commission’s inquiry (economic impact, innovation, education and training, culture and community, physical and global connections).
The University has a pivotal role to play nationally as a prominent HE institution (HEI), and as a destination of choice for learners in the context of the colossal expansion of university provision over the past decade and the recent lifting of the HE numbers cap. Geographically, Warwick also perhaps finds itself in a position of risk and opportunity in equal measure. The competition between essentially independent and financially autonomous university institutions, long a feature of the UK higher education system in sharp contrast with the more financially unstable and centrally-directed further education system, provides an intriguing backdrop to the Commission’s work. The university is faced with a number of high profile, successful competitors in the West Midlands, not least in Birmingham itself, as well as the complex political geography of the region and the opportunity for HE providers to play an influential role in Local Enterprise Partnerships and the emerging West Midlands Combined Authority.
NIACE has long played a role as a think tank, research and development, and campaigning body concerned with all aspects of the post-compulsory education and training system across the UK. We aspire to achieve greater levels and diversity of participation and provision to enable adults to continue to learn throughout their lives in the variety of different settings that provide such opportunities. We are equally concerned with further education as we are with higher education, with community learning as with other informal settings, with apprenticeships and with the private/independent training sector. Our work is focussed on expanding opportunity for adults over the age of 18 to continue to learn – both for the social/community benefits this brings, but more importantly, for its economic necessity.
We have made a powerful case to Government over the course of the 2010-15 Parliament, continuing into the 2015-20 sessions, using applied national research to evidence and demonstrate the economic utility of lifelong learning. With 13.5M job vacancies forecast over the next decade, but only 7M new young people forecast to enter the labour market over the same period, the importance of training and re-training for the existing workforce, or people currently active in the labour market, could not be more pressing as a challenge facing a sustainable and equitable UK economic recovery. Against this backdrop, the national decline in adult participation in HE is well documented, and equally is economically damaging. Damaging because of the positive role HE has in supporting an ageing population with people working longer before they retire. And damaging to businesses and competitiveness, because UK recovery requires labour market participants to maintain a high level of skills to better compete at home, and across the world.
These arguments are not lost on Warwick University or the major employers in the West Midlands sub region. Warwick is to be commended for maintaining a strong and well regarded centre for lifelong learning, amongst a dwindling band of such provision in UK higher education. The University’s work in support of Jaguar Land Rover’s academy has broken new ground in the provision of HE supported higher apprenticeships and associated higher level skills and CPD activities, benefitting the global competitiveness of employers and demonstrating the powerful vocational impact of HE on productivity improvement and firm retention in the UK. So there is much to celebrate. But at the same time, the Chancellor’s commission would do well to consider some of the wider challenges facing the university as it seeks to continue to expand this role and demonstrate the value added to productivity from firms partnering successfully with HE. Most importantly, the Commission should give careful consideration to how as an institution, the University will seek to remain accessible and vocationally relevant, not simply a competitive provider for comparatively lucrative full time undergraduate HE, but seeking and aspiring to define a positive vision for an HEI with a strong sense of social and economic purpose for lifelong learning alongside provision to match this aspiration.
How have we articulated this challenge nationally at NIACE? In particular we have campaigned prominently to highlight the damaging reductions in adult participation in higher education and the declining opportunities for part-time, flexible HE provision to support adult learners. This has included supporting the national Part Time Matters campaign, and partnering with a range of successful HEIs, like Warwick, who seek to maintain successful lifelong learning provision against the substantial financial challenges facing the sector. Our response to the Government’s 2013 The Power of Part-Time made this case, reiterated in our campaigning following the 2014 HEFCE review, Pressure From All Sides. This followed national work undertaken in 2013 when we published a major study of the needs and benefits case for flexible part-time HE. The more recent policy changes, including the 2013 Autumn Statement’s lifting of the HE numbers cap, a change that takes effect this academic year, are tools at the disposal of the Chancellor’s commission, meriting consideration as opportunities to incentivise the supply of and demand for flexible and creative ways for learners to participate in higher education.
NIACE is supporting a number of partners to better understand the barriers to mature and part-time access to higher education and to consider how best to incentivise adults to participate. Economic need for retraining and up-skilling the existing labour market drives this for HEIs in their major employer partnerships, rather than participation purely for the pleasure of learning - important though this latter aspect is both to HEIs by ethos, and to NIACE from a values and charitable purpose perspective. But HEIs like Warwick now have a unique opportunity alongside other forms of provision to structure their adult offer to reach both markets – the aspirant adult learner returning for pleasure, and the utilitarian learner up-skilling and retraining for employment progression. A positive strategy to encourage and develop the demand side adult participation market, backed by continuing reform of the supply side offer from HEIs to cater for flexible, part-time provision for working age adults, puts universities in a strong position to tap into these markets and to develop a globally competitive, technical HE offer that suits the needs and demands of major UK employers.
Our campaigning activities also support a strong and necessary focus on localism and devolution in our work. The economic case for part-time flexible HE provision to meet the needs of UK labour market competitiveness is coupled with our strong exhortation to HEIs to work collaboratively across complex polycentric local political and economic geographies, precisely the terrain facing Warwick as a major HEI in the West Midlands. Localism and partnership in an expanded era of devolution in post-compulsory learning and skills is now set to form part of an essential backdrop to city deals and devolution - arrangements into which the University must play positively in the near future.
This aspect of devolved sub-regional governance of economic geographies then provides a further strong opportunity for the Commission to consider the University’s potential role as a major proactive arbiter in the Local Enterprise Partnership and Combined Authority areas it may in future sit, not just across the HEIs in the region, but across the full spectrum of the post-compulsory learning and skills system. With further education institutions weakened by the drag of successive policy changes and destabilising fiscal restraint, HEIs potentially have a stronger leadership and convening role to play under this new system. They would do well to approach this positively, democratically and transparently in what will be at times fractious partnerships. And for all the reasons of economics I have described, it is in these contexts that flexible, part time provision for adults will truly come to matter.
We would therefore strongly encourage the Chancellor’s commission to rise to this challenge and continue to break new ground in restructuring the supply side in a firm dialogue with West Midlands employers. Specifically, we would also encourage the Commission to consider and support NIACE’s endeavours to press for the following actions that require strategic intervention at a national level, supported by bodies of NIACE and Warwick’s calibre:
- The government to develop a national strategy to increase the number of adults participating in higher education.
- More research to be commissioned into what works for adults in higher education.
- Improve the way higher education is promoted, particularly to adults who would prefer to learn flexibly.
NIACE has also undertaken work with Forum for Access and Continuing Education (FACE), the Universities Association for Lifelong Learning (UALL) and Action on Access to examine different aspects of Higher Education Institutions' local partnership and collaboration with schools, further education colleges, local authorities, employers and local communities. The Warwick Commission would do well to also seek evidence contributions from these bodies. We have shared our experience and learning on best practice in the sector to help develop local and institutional action plans improving civic engagement with higher education, and would be delighted to replicate this with the Warwick Commission.
NIACE will be delighted to continue to support the work of the Commission, and to supply further formal evidence if the opportunity arises.
Tom Stannard is currently Deputy Chief Executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), the UK research and development, and campaigning institute for the learning, skills and employment support sector. He has worked at NIACE for two and a half years following a long career in UK local government, in London and the North West. In October 2015, he returns to local government to become the Director of Enterprise and Skills at Oldham Council in Greater Manchester.