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Thinking big on the design of the UK higher education system

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Thinking big on the design of the UK higher education system

UK higher education website Wonkhe asked sector experts for their ideas on how to change the higher education landscape. Here is the contribution from Nous Group's Zac Ashkanasy.

If we could design a contemporary higher education system, the system today wouldn’t be our starting point. Trying to decode today’s system is like following the hidden codes of a Dan Brown novel – fun to read, but it somehow doesn’t add up. So what would you do if you could start again?

Recommission the sector: The UK is renowned around the world (in a good way) with the outsourcing of its services to private and non-profit organisations – think employment services, probation services, youth services, prison services and parts of the health system. What if the Government took this concept and applied it to higher education? Part of the recommissioning would involve having had fewer players, would incorporate further education with higher education, deregulate fees and have a target of one-third of institutions privatised

Big incentives for mergers and acquisitions: Government puts a £100m pot of money on the table for universities to merge (or be ‘acquired’). The aim is to halve the number of universities. This is not to say that small, niche-focused institutions should automatically be subsumed – in fact, the opposite. You want institutions that do focus well on prospering. The real target is the middling institutions who don’t appear to do teaching or research well. These institutions need scale and investment to professionalise their offer and to create economies of scale. Equally, the savvy high performing university might see ‘acquisition’ opportunities to leapfrog their strategic agendas, particularly in research performance.

Cities as precincts: Government coordinates and invests in international student infrastructure in key cities (or nodes) around the UK. The UK takes the experience of cities like Melbourne in Australia and replicates it. This would include a common pre-arrival information and greeting service at airports, dedicated social spaces in each city for international students, bespoke student support, counselling and crisis services, joint infrastructure projects with student accommodation providers, and coordinated student recruitment campaigns. Universities in each city would operate locally on the philosophy of cooperation rather than competition.

Government as a platform: Imagine if government reimagines its role from regulator to platform provider. The NHS is a proto-version of this. In other countries, this is exactly what has happened, including a common ehealth record (that works!) for all citizens. The UK Government could adopt a similar mindset for higher education. It would build a common platform for all for admissions, learning management, credentialing and research management. It could also just buy one the plethora of edutechs to enable this – why build if it’s already been built?

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