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 Saturday, 11 January, 2003, 00:00 GMT
'Multiversity' of the future
Mike Baker graphic

Britain's universities are on the edge of their professorial chairs.

So are potential students and their parents.

For very soon the government will reveal its thinking on the future shape of the university system.

The headlines have been, and will continue to be, dominated by what happens to student tuition fees.

The conventional image of what constitutes a university will change

The question is not whether they will go up, but by how much and in what form?

It is already clear the government has been frightened off implementing big increases in up-front fees.

Although the price of a degree will go up, most future graduates will not have to pay more until they have started to earn.

Variable fees - top-up fees, in the jargon - are also likely, although not of the five-figure order predicted by some.

Return of grants

There could be a ceiling imposed on how much extra any university can charge.

To balance this - and to attempt to promote wider participation by students from poorer homes - there will be a limited restoration of grants.

These will be means-tested and will be modelled on the education maintenance allowances paid to students in further education.

Overall, middle-class graduates - but not their parents - will have to pay more to obtain a degree. They may well have to pay a real return on their currently subsidised loans too.

We shall, as I say, get the details soon. But important though student finance is, we should not ignore the government's wider plans for universities which will also be contained in the Higher Education Strategy Paper.

Huge change

These plans are likely to amount to as big a change as that brought in by the Robbins Report of the 1960s (which heralded the big expansionary phase of the late 1960s and 1970s) or by the ending of the university/polytechnic divide in the 1980s.

Two aims will drive this change.

First, the desire to get 50% of young people into higher education in some form or another.

Second, the aim of recreating a two-tier, or multi-tier, system of universities, ranging from those focused on research to those specialising in teaching.

The conventional image of what constitutes a university will change. In fact, it is doing so already, but these changes will accelerate.

For example, the divide between FE colleges and teaching universities will be blurred.

There are already more students on higher education courses in FE colleges than there were in all universities in the pre-Robbins era. This will grow.

Different sort of student

The government's 50% target does not envisage these extra students following conventional degree courses.

As the Higher Education Minister, Margaret Hodge, has said, the planned expansion is not for "more of the same".

For many, this change strikes at the very essence of a university

The growth areas will not be on English, philosophy or politics courses at Bristol, Nottingham or Edinburgh.

Instead it will mean more students taking foundation degrees or HNDs at FE colleges or taking employer-based, sub-degree courses at the newer universities.

Some universities will become teaching-only institutions (something vice-chancellors will resist) and a few will become out-and-out vocational institutions.

More mergers

For many, this change strikes at the very essence of a university.

They see teaching and research as mutually dependent. They argue that if you deprive an institution of research then you will no longer attract the best teachers.

But with a participation rate of 50% there will be changes.

Graduates will not be able to expect better jobs just because they have a degree as was once the case.

For this reason the official calculation that a degree is worth an extra 400,000 in lifetime earnings is unlikely to be valid for students graduating today as opposed to 40 years ago.

Instead the government hopes to get more young people onto one- and two-year higher education courses at FE colleges and see some of them progress to full degrees at associated universities.

Strategic alliances, or mergers, between FE colleges and universities are likely to become more common.

Workplace links

Some universities are already heading down the vocational route in a big way. Bournemouth is one example.

They are likely to be encouraged to continue this direction with a much closer relationship between higher education and the workplace.

The future is likely to see a much more varied range of universities

This goes back to the original idea behind most polytechnics and indeed many of the big civic universities.

In the late 19th century, anxiety that Victorian Britain was falling behind its industrial competitors was behind the creation of new universities at Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool and Bristol. Each was closely related to local industries like textiles or steel.

So the future is likely to see a much more varied range of universities, with different sectors having different aims.

Some might see this as a return to the old polytechnic/university divide but it will probably be more complex than that.

There will still be the elite, established universities taking the lion's share of the research funding.

Top-up fees might boost their income so they are better able to compete internationally.

The 'multiversity'

Next will come a further range of universities, combining limited research with teaching, and still offering a general higher education.

They might charge top-up fees for some of their more popular or prestigious courses but will otherwise continue to rely overwhelmingly on basic government funding.

Then there will be what has been termed the "multiversity". These institutions will combine FE and HE.

They will have strong links with employers and the workplace. Some will offer only vocational courses, others a mix.

Already happening

Many students at the "multiversity" will not go on to take a full degree.

Others will start out with no intention of doing so but will, perhaps after a period of employment, continue their studies to full degree level.

It is starting to happen already. The Universities for Medway is a partnership between the established University of Kent, the newer University of Greenwich, and Mid-Kent FE.

It is a "multiversity" offering a wide range of courses, vocational to academic, sub-degree level to PhD.

It will be partnerships like this which will be expected to drive the expansion, bringing in new students from families with no tradition of going to university.

We welcome your comments at although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.

See also:

19 Jul 01 | Education
01 Jul 02 | N Ireland
27 Sep 02 | England
16 Dec 02 | England
13 Dec 02 | England
16 May 01 | Education
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