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Bill Rammell - Guardian Higher Education Summit

QEII Centre, London - 11 February 2008

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Thank you, Mike.

Good morning everyone. I'm delighted to see so many of you here.

I must begin by thanking Donald MacLeod and the Guardian newspaper, both for organizing today's event, the second annual higher education summit, and, of course, for inviting me to give this keynote address.

The theme of this morning's session is the future of higher education. So I'd like to talk in turn about five themes that I think will be crucial to how the sector develops over the next few years.

Some people think of the higher education sector as innately conservative. And indeed some institutions were there before the House of Commons and do sometimes seem to assume that they'll be there long after. And indeed politicians like me do sometimes find the pace of change infuriatingly slow.

Yet change, and radical change, does happen.

Just think how universities have changed over the last fifty years. And I'd like to talk to you this morning about some of the ways in which I think they'll change - and how I think they'll need to change - over the next ten years or so.

The first, and in many ways most important, area in which I think change must come is that of access.

Now that's nothing new. The number and social composition of students has been widening gradually, though not at a consistent pace, for decades. And that process was given a new impetus by the creation of OFFA in 2004.

In the 1960s, only 5 per cent of young people went into higher education. The figure's now over 40 per cent.

That sounds like a pretty impressive improvement. And it is. But it nevertheless hides a number of causes for concern. For example, the proportion of young people from the higher socio-economic groups who get a higher education is over 43 per cent. The proportion from the lower groups is just under 20 per cent.

I know the causes for that inequality of opportunity are complex and not confined to universities' admissions policies. But that's no excuse for any university to wash its hands of the problem.

As an illustration, I'll give you some more statistics. On average, in non-Russell Group universities, one in three students comes from one of the lower socio-economic groups. In the Russell Group, it's one in five. And at Oxford and Cambridge, it's one in ten.

And that's just not good enough. The talent of all our people deserves to be unlocked. Over our history, we've let too much of it go to waste by lying undeveloped. In an increasingly knowledge-driven world, we can't afford to let that happen. And now's the time for change.

Many leaders in the sector understand that fact and are already acting upon it. For example, by embracing programmes like Aimhigher, designed to raise aspirations among groups who are under-represented in universities.

By forming stronger links with local schools and communities - a subject on which I'll have more to say later.

And by engaging with the development of the new 14-19 Diplomas, which could potentially have such a radical influence on higher education entrance.

I want here publicly to acknowledge the progressive approach shown by the 1994 Group of universities. Steve Smith, Vice Chancellor of Exeter University, recently confirmed that all 18 of the English universities in the Group are likely to accept Diplomas.

The second area of change follows to some degree from the first. And that's what the student population will look like.

In 2005, 29 per cent of the working-age population had received an education to first-degree level. According to the Leitch review recommendations, we need to raise that figure to at least 40 per cent by 2020. But we're not going to achieve that just by recruiting more school-leavers to higher education. 70 per cent of the people who will make up the workforce in 2020 have already left school.

So uiniversities are going to have to get more creative in looking for their new students.

That won't just be a matter of attracting more mature students. Mature people have lives, commitments and careers. I personally doubt that most of the sorts of numbers of learners that we will be talking about will be willing or able to sign up for a three- or four-year full-time degree course.

That will mean more part-timers.

But it won't just mean people who turn up on campus on one or two days a week.

Universities will have to go out into the workplace itself to find their recruits, and be prepared to cater for them on their employers' premises at times convenient to employers and learners alike.

The scale of this challenge is hard to overestimate. It will certainly involve greater use of technology. And it will also require a hard look at the traditional structures of courses. I'm not talking here about dumbing-down, but about creativity and flexibility in the way the components of knowledge to be delivered are organized.

All that doesn't just mean that campuses are going to look a lot greyer. Indeed, they may actually look a lot emptier. I'm sure that issue on its own is one that many vice chancellors are already starting to think about.

The third area of change that I want to highlight will be in the extent of student involvement with learning.

Some people will tell you that, because students now contribute financially towards, their higher education, they ought to be regarded and treated just like any other consumers of a product that's bought and sold.

I reject that view. There are a number of reasons I could put forward for that. In the first place, what students pay towards their own education should not be seen as a something-for-something exchange, but as an investment in their own futures.

The rewards of that investment are well established. Higher education offers significant earnings benefits to people. Over their working life, it has been estimated that the average graduate earns comfortably over 100,000 more than someone with just A levels. Moreover, the evidence shows that graduates experience better health, are less likely to commit crime and are more likely to engage in civil society.

More importantly, I don't think we should consider higher education as something that is just doled out and passively consumed. It's a more precious commodity than that.

All education is a two-way process which places demands on learners and teachers alike. That is as true today as it was in the time of Socrates. And a large part of the point of the whole process is to use their minds actively - by reading, by experimenting and by questioning.

But that is not to say that we shouldn't strive to produce a qualitative improvement in students' experience of higher education. And it doesn't mean that an institution which fails to place the needs of learners at the centre of its policies also fails in fulfilling its main purpose.

The National Student Survey will help with that. The survey has been conducted annually since 2005 and has rapidly become one of the main sources of information on how students feel about the service they are getting.

This year's survey, conducted by Ipsos/MORI, obtained an encouraging 60 per cent response rate and an 81 per cent student satisfaction rate. In future years, we will be able to monitor changes in the survey results, as well, no doubt, as further refining the survey itself.

To put it in very crude terms, this will tell us and university managers whether the higher education system is getting better or worse from the students' point of view.

Another important new development along similar lines is the Unistats website. This brings a wealth of accurate, official and up-to-date information to help prospective students and those who advise them make the right choices about where and what to study. And the UKPASS system will extend a similar service to prospective postgraduate students from this country and overseas

The information available includes the number of UCAS points needed for a particular course, what sort of jobs past graduates from it have gone on to do and, very importantly, the results of the latest National Student Survey.

The work of the Quality Assurance Agency also rates a mention. Since 1997, the QAA has been working with universities to improve the quality and transparency of higher education. This work has led to a better and more consistent standard of the education that students receive.

In order to address this, my colleague John Denham announced on 28 November that QAA, in partnership with other sector agencies, will be developing a strategy for engagement with students. The aim will be to ensure that students' voices and opinions are clearly heard in universities' quality management processes.

I ought to add for completeness that we in the Government are not the only people taking action to improve the student experience. The NUS's own Student Union Evaluation Initiative, with our support is allowing individual students' unions to assess themselves against different performance headings; and then receive ongoing support for the development and implementation of an improvement plan.

The fourth area of change will involve changes to university courses themselves.

I've already mentioned that changes to the composition of the student population will encourage the content and delivery of courses to become more flexible.

But I expect there also to be rising demand from employers for more or less tailored vocational courses designed to meet their growing high-level skills needs. There are all sorts of issues around these that we will have to be prepared to examine with an open mind. And I'm not falling into the trap of regarding suchcourses solely in terms of a commercial transaction between a business and a university. There are difficult institutional funding questions that my Department and HEFCE will have to answer as well.

A further area of change, and one that is already well under way, is the internationalization of courses. And it's happening in a wide variety of ways.

There are sound financial reasons for universities keeping their courses under review in order to ensure that they remain attractive to their overseas students, and useful to them in career terms when they return home.

The sort of understanding of the marketplace for students that's needed to carry out that examination is also vital to the increasing number of British universities that are establishing outposts in other countries.

And will universities from overseas opening permanent bases here? The effects of that sort of competition would be interesting to see.

On the European front, change never stops. We already have a European Education Area, a European Higher Education Area, a European Research Area, and many more besides. Sometimes they can seem little more than names with figures and euro signs attached to them in the EU budget. We in the Government will keep working with our European partners to ensure that they become increasingly meaningful and valuable features of the European university landscape.

Universities, too, have responsibilities in this regard. I'm not going to say much about this, beyond the fact that the Bologna Process represents in my view a key to ensuring that higher education Europe-wide benefits fully from the possibilities for transnational collaboration. And that the direction of the Process lies mainly in the hands of Europe's universities themselves.

I can't move on without mentioning the need for more, many more, of our home students to gain experience abroad as part of their UK course. As a lot of you know, this is something I feel passionately about. The programmes, European and wider, that can facilitate that outward mobility are already in place. And I don't kid myself that our universities don't already have the international contacts needed to organize placements abroad.

But what are we doing about creating demand from students? About getting the message across that mobility brings career benefits as well as life benefits? Not enough, in my book. I'll go further, and say that the onus for conveying the message, and for repeating it until it gets through, lies mainly with universities themselves.

The fifth and final area of change that I'll mention briefly involves the partnerships that universities form with other bodies. Higher education-business partnerships are the ones that we always seem to mention and these are indeed important. But as I've said already, the range of such partnerships is set to expand dramatically.

They will also go increasingly go beyond purely commercial exchanges.I know universities, many of them, are reluctant to admit employers to the hallowed area of course design itself.

But believe me, it's going to happen.

There will also be closer working between universities and the further education sector. About fifty FE colleges already offer higher education courses, but I can see the relationship increasingly cutting both ways. FE providers know a lot about working with employers. And they know an awful lot about the needs of the new groups of adult learners to which universities will be looking over the coming years. There is scope here for a growing and mutually beneficial field of collaboration.

Finally, universities are reaching out more and more into the State school system. That's in their own interests because it helps them to identify and encourage talent among their own future recruits. And it's clearly greatly to the benefit of schools as learning institutions, too. I'm not going to say much on this except to give the sector another exhortation to go out there and get involved, especially with the new Academies.

Twenty minutes isn't enough to do more than signpost many of the important and often complex issues to which I've referred this morning. I know that you'll have much more to hear and to say about many of them over the coming two days.

However, I want to close not by talking about what's going to change, but what remains the same. By that I mean the core values of our university system. Because whatever else we do, we mustn't allow the baby to be thrown out with the bathwater.

I'll name some of them

Freedom of speech, which goes hand-in-hand with willingness to listen.

Freedom to challenge other people's opinions and debate them, which goes hand-in-hand with tolerance of minority views.

Freedom of thought, which goes hand-in-hand with freedom of inquiry.

The values of a liberal democracy.

The values of an open, pluralistic and cohesive society.

The civilised values of the British university system that it is the duty of all of us to respect and defend, so that future generations can enjoy their benefits as we have done.

Thank you. I hope that you all enjoy the rest of the conference.