Identity Crisis

HE has been having an identity crisis for a while now, or at least I have. I am a firm advocate of widening participation policies and social mobility, but I am also concerned about unyielding massification. The dilemma? A belief in positively encouraging more ‘non-traditional students’ into HE, without wanting it to necessitate an exponential rise in the number of students is tricky. Limit the amount of white middle-class kids conveyor-belting into ‘uni,’ advocate an alternative system which takes some of the educational burden away from HEIs, simple privatisation, or insist that universities can adapt themselves to the increasing pressures of capacity and deliverance?

My support for social mobility enterprises rests in a rejection of the ‘elite’ HE that used to exist in Britain. Labour’s 50% target helped to boost such programmes, as it could only be met by encouraging an increasingly diverse student body. British universities have exploded in size, changed in character and become international superstars with bases all over the world. However, as Andy Westwood noted in his It’s (Hard) Labour article, I may not be alone in a post-crash Britain when it comes to doubting that bigger is better, that more and more students entering HEIs is the best method for tackling the issues of young peoples’ employability, universities’ usefulness and society mechanics as a whole.

This is not to oppose massification as a policy. But the ‘logical’ conclusion that leads to a ‘universal’ HE, near compulsory higher education for all young citizens, seems overwhelming. With the number of UK and EU students admitted to university up by 9% on last year, the concomitant discussion continues to be that of fees and the sector’s riding of a wave back up to pre-£9000 attainments. But the continuing need is for a discussion about what this actually means, amid the media’s quotidian reminder that superfluous amounts of graduates are struggling to find work for a lack of soft skills, or simply a lack of jobs.

Making sure that anyone able and willing to study at university is given a fair and supported opportunity to do so, regardless of background, is the core of my understanding of social mobility. Encouraging young people to follow the ‘Redbrick Road’ for the sake of it, on the assumption that it’s ‘just the best,’ – that is where I stumble. As part of the wider debate about the place of HEIs in an ever knowledge-based economy of ever-diversifying and intensifying needs, should the university identity become a catch-all for everything and everyone or is it not capable of being so?

Universities are places in which people can transform their lives, in terms of social mobility, personal development and the provision of lifelong learning. They continue to be the answer when disadvantaged, talented young people need an opportunity to progress. But does this mean that everyone should go to university, and only strive to the ‘best’ ones at that? If a young person spies an interest elsewhere, do we push them on regardless, especially if they are ‘gifted and talented?’

To paraphrase Educating Yorkshire’s Headmaster, Mr Mitchell, the goal is for every young person who wants to go to college to be able to, who wants to go to university to be able to, and who wants to find a job to be able to. ‘Vocational’ should not be a dirty word, something for the dunces of the family whilst the best and brightest get all the status attached to attending university. Oxbridge does need more state school students, but the focus should not rest solely on squeezing more and more young people into the gaps between dreaming spires. There is a finite amount of room.

As the employability-based concerns of students increases, as well as employers’ concern for their ‘skills,’ there is an evident need for this identity crisis to be tackled. Is it the new identity of HEIs to provide layered education, or does it need to be layered alongside them? By no means am I the first to ask…