(a) What is the purpose of higher education? How should it support society in general? What role should it play in underpinning a modern, competitive economy?
The role of all education is to maximise people's ability to benefit and to contribute to both their own development and society in general. A specific role of higher education is to enable people to acquire the ability to gain new skills and knowledge throughout life. It achieves this by allowing people to think about ideas and concepts in different ways.
Higher education is thus more than just 'vocational' training, or teaching people skills for specific tasks or occupations. It needs to produce people who can tackle problems other than the specific problems they have been taught about. In this respect, higher education teaches people how to learn.
This does not mean that higher education should not be vocational; indeed, far from it. But, it should not be limited to only vocational training.
A PhD provides a broad training in research. This training enables people to acquire the skills to solve problems on their own and in teams, and to produce an original contribution to knowledge. Although a PhD often involves a highly specialised research project, the skills obtained in the accumulation and dissemination of new knowledge and ideas can be applied much more generally. The research contributed by postgraduate research students forms a high proportion of the total UK research base, and so is of vital economic and social importance.
Postgraduate training provides a pool of people who are able to then teach others in their subject area, to the high levels required by higher education. It also provides role models of people who regularly apply deeper levels of thought and analysis to any matters affecting society.
Higher education benefits society in a number of ways. Society needs skilled people, and higher education produces a large number of such people. Higher education also gives people a broader training than they would receive if they were just being trained for a particular job. Consequently, these people have the generic skills which allow them to tackle new problems and to apply skills learnt in one area to problems in another. This generation of new ideas is absolutely vital for the economy, because solving problems in new ways produces new wealth-creating products. Better mouse-traps are developed every day, so depending on old mouse-traps will leave the economy in a backwater.
In addition, the concentration of so many highly skilled teachers in institutions allows these teachers to carry out research of a very high quality, starting totally new lines of investigation which will themselves lead to new technologies and wealth creating possibilities.
Higher education attracts many people from overseas to come and study in this country. It therefore contributes not only to our own society, but to societies in countries all over the world. These people bring with them a huge variety of cultures and experiences which are beneficial to our own education and greatly enrich the cultural side of our nation.
However, higher education is not solely about wealth creation. Scholarship can be an end in itself for many people. Human beings love to learn, and find things out. Education is a cultural activity in the same was as the arts are, and people should be given the opportunity to indulge in learning for their own personal fulfillment.
(b) What are the implications for the future shape of higher education - for example as between initial and continuing higher education, between vocational and non-vocational higher education, between diploma, honours degree and Masters degree level courses, and between teaching and research?
Continuing higher education: Higher education does need to become more involved in continuing education, in particular Continuing Professional Development. Many professions are recognising that with the current rate of increase in knowledge, people have to continue learning throughout their career. Such continuing education is likely to be more focused to specific needs than the initial education, which would probably involve a more general training in how to obtain and use information and skills.
Vocational higher education: With the continuous development of new industries and realisation of the importance of transferable skills, the artificial boundary between vocational and non-vocational higher education will probably become more indistinct. Every subject has some vocational element. As we have already mentioned, higher education should be more than simply vocational training. It may train people for specific industries, but not for specific jobs or firms.
Masters degrees: There is currently a huge variety of different types of course all falling under the umbrella of the Masters degree. These include specialisation courses, conversion courses, professional qualifications and research training courses. It is important, for prospective students and employers of graduates, that the different natures of courses can be distinguished and that a Masters qualification reflects the attainment of a higher level of knowledge and skills than an undergraduate degree.
Balance between teaching and research: High quality teaching requires tutors who keep up with the new ideas and discoveries in their subject. The best way to achieve this is for the teachers to be carrying out research themselves in the area. For students, the experience of first-hand research helps enormously their understanding of and enthusiasm for a subject.
Postgraduate research training should remain just that - a broad education in how to carry out research. Acquiring the ability to apply existing knowledge is not a sufficient goal. This training has developed a much greater cross-disciplinary nature in recent years; computing skills, for example, are relevant to all fields of study. The PhD should include taught elements, covering areas such as research methodology and communication skills.
(c) What are the implications for the future size of higher education?
The sum of human knowledge is growing at an ever increasing rate. One batch of learning at the start of a career will not last for the whole career. With increasing technological innovation, whole industries may become redundant and new ones created, so people will need retraining. The market for jobs is becoming ever more competitive, and the proportion which requires skilled workers ever higher. It is therefore very important that all people, and especially those who are out of work, are given the opportunity to continue learning new skills.
Higher education will have to become more flexible and increase in size as people find that they will be required to take part in continuous education and skill acquisition throughout their lives. This will mean that higher education will no longer be primarily concerned with educating 18-21 year-olds. Our only future is as a highly innovative, highly skilled economy, with a well trained workforce.