A new model for post 18 education?

There is no doubt in my mind that schooling must change, but the same is equally true of post 18 education.

One of the many consequences of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is that the roll out of artificial intelligence will both de-skill and empower workers in new and unpredictable ways. The certainty of uncertainty creates insecurity and fear in people, especially in the periphery of the economy and society. The political consequences of that are playing out in the UK, elsewhere in Europe and in the USA.

An essential part of the policy response to this constant change has to be an agile, affordable and responsive adult learning system. We need adults to have the desire, self belief and capacity to keep learning and pivoting through multiple careers. How might we do that?

We first need a compulsory schooling system that nurtures a confidence in learning and skills as self directed learners. Education needs to be an engaging and enjoyable exploration, and not dull rote-based instruction dominated by tests. There needs to be a broad framework of knowledge from across the curriculum as a foundation to build upon, with a playfulness to learning that feels natural and sociable.

But what happens then? Two thirds of school pupils currently have an ambition to go to university. This is seen as the sign of ambition and aspiration. Schools sell themselves on the basis of their university admission data.

Cathy Davidson explains in her book “A New Education”, our model of universities was developed first by Harvard in response to the industrial revolution – it was no longer sufficient to educate clerics alone. What emerged was a system where academic selection created a talent filter that suited employers wanting higher level human intelligence. As technology has eroded the demand for lower skilled labour we have channelled more and more young people through college to an extent that the only way to fund it was through spiralling levels of personal debt.

The return on that investment is now starting to look shaky.

The Sutton Trust show that the earn as you learn model of higher level apprenticeships can develop the higher intelligences demanded by employers without the debt of university. Employers are also beginning to find that it is more efficient to employ someone straight from school and develop them that way, rather than having to get graduates to unlearn habits from academia that don’t work so well in the real world of work.

This could be a disaster for our universities. They have a business model based on research funding and being paid for teaching services, largely teaching school leavers. Many are also doing well as property developers. But what if apprenticeships really take off? And what is the sense of beginning a working life with a £50,000 student debt?

We need a new business model for universities. I think they should move to subscription services. These offer attractive recurring revenues and create room for better services. Why not offer employers subscriptions to both research and teaching services? They could also do so in partnership with FE Colleges as part of a new flexibility and outreach to peripheral areas.

Such a model would presume school leavers go straight into work. Their employer would then work with apprenticeship and other training providers to develop the skills that are needed to develop the individuals. They would identify those staff that would benefit from university courses, when they are intellectually and emotionally ready, and at all points in a working life. The learner can then continue to earn whilst learning. Employers could use a reformed apprenticeship levy to fund this professional development.

Such schemes could be offered by universities themselves so that they can meet their own needs to recruit academic talent for their research activity.

Such a system would need to be underpinned by an accreditation system that recorded this ongoing learning and the experience gained in work. That then allows learners to change jobs and take the value of their training with them. Such a learning ledger could be developed using blockchain technology.

The courses would also need flexibility. The four year Batchelors and the Masters degrees serve the needs of institutions but are becoming an anachronism. Degrees could instead become capstones across a multiplicity of different courses from different institutions, some online and some campus based. Assessment can then examine what the individual is capable of – not time served on a course as is too often the case, especially in the current apprenticeship framework.

We need a flexible new adult learning system that embraces part time, and new forms of assessment and accreditation. We need a vibrant university and college sector that interrelates to meet the needs of individuals who must keep refreshing their skills and knowledge to remain valuable citizens. This requires radical change.


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