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The success paradoxWhy we need a holistic theory of social mobility$

Graeme Atherton

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781447316336

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781447316336.001.0001

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Unbundling, diversification and the ecological university: new models for higher education

Unbundling, diversification and the ecological university: new models for higher education

(p.85) Five Unbundling, diversification and the ecological university: new models for higher education
The success paradox

Graeme Atherton

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter will look at the relationship between higher education (HE) and social mobility. It will explore whether HE as it is presently constructed can provide all students with the skills they need to progress in work or life. It asks whether HE should move from becoming something that 40%­50% of the population participate in to something that 90% of the population should participate in? The chapter examines the arguments surrounding the benefits of higher education both economic and non­economic. It argues that the latter are in need of empirical and theoretical development. It then goes onto argue that the model of what HE can and should be in the 21st century is in need of transformation to capture the unique contribution that HE can make to the individual and collective good. In conclusion it argues for the diversification of HE both in terms of who participates in HE and the benefits that HE can provide, if HE is to be the driver of holistic social mobility.

Keywords:   higher education, social mobility, theoretical development, empirical development

Our belief is that deep, radical and urgent transformation is required in higher education as much as it is in school systems. Our fear is that, perhaps as a result of complacency, caution or anxiety, or a combination of all three, the pace of change is too slow and the nature of change too incremental.

(Barber et al 2013: 3)


In the long run, an increase in the overall level of education in the population may well be almost inevitable, despite the variable returns it may have for many. It is not as clear, however, how this education will be delivered. Higher education (HE) is cast in the present discourse as the main route for upward social mobility by the majority but, as has been shown in previous chapters, there are an increasing number of naysayers doubting its ability to confer benefits on all who participate. At the same time, HE is changing. As the number of (different types of) students entering HE increases, new forms of provision and new providers are entering the sector. This is leading to a battle within HE itself to define what it is and what it does, as external educational, economic and social forces pose both threats and opportunities.

This chapter looks at the relationship between HE and social mobility. It explores whether HE as it is presently constructed can provide all students with the skills they need to progress in work and life. Can and should HE move from becoming something for 40 to 50% of the population to something for 90%? Should it remain where it is, or is something new needed, to provide the greater post-secondary education that this century will inevitably see? Under a holistic view of social mobility there is a need for a post-secondary education route that can enable individual progression throughout life. Can HE do this for some, any, or all? Participation in HE increased from 19% in 1990 to close to 50% by the early 2010s (Bolton 2012, BIS 2013a), (p.86) but, as argued later, the economic benefits remain robust, and most students are still very satisfied with their decision to enter HE despite fees increasing (Grove 2014). However, tensions are showing. If there is to be another step-change in HE participation in England, changes bigger than those that enabled the last increase in participation to work may be required.

Access to higher education

There has been considerable progress in England in the last 20 years in terms of narrowing the gap in participation in HE between those from higher and lower socioeconomic groups. Those from ‘high participation’ neighbourhoods are 2.7 times more likely to progress to HE than those from low participation neighbourhoods in 2013 compared to 4.3 times more likely in 2004 (BIS 2014). This change represents steady but impressive progress, but it has come at a cost. As an estimate, over £900 million was invested in activities to widen access to HE in the 2000s (Atherton 2010). Investment in activities to support wider access to HE and also to support students entering HE from underrepresented backgrounds was close to £1 billion per year in the early 2010s (BIS 2014).

However, there are still huge differences in the numbers attending HE from lower and higher socioeconomic groups. There is also a range of ‘fault lines’ of inequality in HE by social background. Socioeconomic group measured especially by geography is the dominant way in which access to HE is conceived in England, but as Watson points out in his 2006 paper for the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE), ‘widening participation’ in HE encompasses quite a range of groups:

Widening participation is taken to mean extending and enhancing access to HE experiences of people from so-called under-represented and diverse subject backgrounds, families, groups and communities and positively enabling such people to participate in and benefit from HE. People from socially disadvantaged families and/or deprived geographical areas, including deprived remote, rural and coastal areas or from families that have no prior experience of HE may be of key concern. Widening participation is also concerned with diversity in terms of ethnicity, gender, disability and social background in particular HE disciplines, modes and institutions. It can also include access (p.87) and participation across the ages, extending conceptions of learning across the life-course, and in relation to family responsibilities, particularly by gender and maturity.

(Watson 2006: 1)

To illustrate Watson’s point, progress in terms of narrowing access gaps at the most selective universities in the last 20 years has not been anywhere near as impressive as across the sector as a whole (Harris 2010). Significant differences also exist in terms of participation by ethnic group, especially regarding type of institution (HEFCE 2013). There is also growing concern regarding the participation of older learners and those who study part-time, who themselves, to an extent, represent an underrepresented group but also include a disproportionate number of students from lower socioeconomic groups. When HE tuition fees were increased in England in 2012, part-time participation immediately fell by a quarter (HESA 2014).

Furthermore, the focus has also turned recently to include not just getting students from different backgrounds into HE, but what happens to them when they enter HE. Research from the HEFCE shows that distinct differences remain in the trajectories of students from underrepresented groups through HE (BIS 2014). The research examined the performance of those from lower HE participation neighbourhoods in terms of classification of degree, course completion and employment six months after graduation. After controlling for prior attainment and institution attended, it shows that those from lower participation neighbourhoods perform below average on all these measures. It appears, then, that even if progress is being made in getting students from lower socioeconomic groups into HE, their background is hampering them when it comes to progress through HE and ‘success’ afterwards.

There are also some deeper cultural and structural barriers to overcome, if outcomes for students from underrepresented groups are to be improved. While there has been considerable investment by the state in England in widening access to HE in the last 15 years, it has not met with universal support. HE serving as the mechanism to equalise the life chances between individuals between different groups makes some people uneasy. It is part of an agenda for HE that is taking it away from its core purpose. As David Willetts, former Minister for Higher Education and Skills under the coalition government from 2010, stated:

(p.88) … the primary role of universities is to enrich our knowledge and understanding. That is the fundamental value of teaching and research. We will not compromise on that. You don’t usually become an academic to raise the national growth rate or to improve social mobility.

(Willetts 2011; emphasis added)

There are structural and cultural ceilings in HE where access is concerned. At the institution level (and those who represent institutions), the limits of the university’s responsibility where access is concerned are forever being drawn in the sand. The following quotation is taken from the Russell Group, the body that represents the most selective HEIs in England:

Of course, our universities have a role to play in helping students from under-privileged backgrounds to overcome the barriers they face, and we have never claimed otherwise. But we cannot solve this problem alone and there is also a vital role here for schools, and other agencies.

(Russell Group 2011)

This doesn’t just apply to the more selective institutions – the regulatory regime in England is based around written ‘access agreements’ between individual institutions and the Office for Fair Access. These agreements outline the measures that institutions need to take each year to promote wider access to their institutions. Other countries, where access might not even be remotely on the radar of universities, look at these with envy. But this has also helped to consolidate the pre-existing idea that access work is something that universities have to do, rather than want to do. This can clearly be seen in the case of those institutions that admit higher numbers of learners from underrepresented groups, arguing with complete justification that they are doing the ‘heavy lifting’ where access is concerned. But few ever express a desire to admit more. They have ‘done their bit’ and are often more concerned to improve their academic standing, so they are not perceived as being an ‘access university’.

This is where the old (or existing) ideas on social mobility and the new ones being described in this book come together. If HE is to be a route to upward social mobility for the majority of the population, at some stage it is going to have to admit the majority into its fold. And this means those from lower socioeconomic groups. The idea that working with schools and the wider community to support access (p.89) to HE through outreach based work such as summer schools, peer mentoring and HE information activities should be a core part of what academics do appears far away,, as does the university leader who is happy to proclaim that at his or her university would like there to be 60, 70 or 80% of its students coming from lower socioeconomic groups still appears far away. As presently constructed, HE is not in a place where it can be the route to ‘mass’ social mobility. The question is, should it ever aspire to be, or be encouraged to be, such a route? Is there a case for HE being the engine for social mobility in the 21st century?

The first case for higher education

In spite of the changes in the labour market described earlier in Chapter Three, the economic case for HE remains robust overall. While there is evidence to support the pessimistic view regarding the role of HE in the 21st-century economy expressed by Brown and colleagues in Chapter One, there is also counter-evidence showing that for the majority of people, going on to HE is the rational thing to do. To borrow from the economists’ view, if going to HE provides any benefit, no matter how small in comparison to the opportunity cost of not going, then it is rational. And overall it does so.

In the mid-2000s, the UK government estimated that graduates would earn over £100,000 more over their lifetime than non-graduates (DfES 2003). However, more recent research commissioned by the government argues that this average return may be even higher (Walker and Zhu 2013).

Furthermore, the economic benefit is not restricted to the individual. The state also, through higher taxation contributions, profits greatly from students entering HE. Walker and Zhu, in research published in 2013 for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), estimate that: .the private benefit of a degree, in terms of lifetime earnings net of tax and loan repayments, is large – in the order of £168k (£252k) for men (women) on average. The social benefit to the government is also large (of the order of £264k (£318k) from men (women) graduates – far in excess of likely exchequer costs (Walker and Zhu 2013: 5).

Walker and Zhu’s work is supported by international evidence. Data from the OECD show that there is an earnings premium attached to tertiary education across countries (OECD 2013). While this premium differs markedly across countries, it is on average 1.5 times that of those with upper secondary education. Nor may the problem be as bad as (p.90) some make out regarding unemployment. Research released by the ONS in 2013 shows that graduate unemployment was actually lower in 2013 than it was in 1992. It was also higher than in the 2000s, but the UK has been experiencing the worst recession since the 1930s (ONS 2013).

Moreover, these data look at 19- to 24-year-olds. What really matters is the labour market position of those in their early 40s, not those in their late 20s (especially for graduates who also start families later, according to ONS research). This is a fundamental point that is missed by the majority of the public discourse on graduate employment. While earnings may be similar for all groups when they enter the labour market, as people get older, it is graduates who earn significantly more (ONS 2013). Looking specifically at occupational mobility, Savage (2011) examined the relationship between being qualified to the graduate equivalent of NVQ Level 4 in the 2000s and progression in the earning scale – those who graduate from HE are more likely to move up the occupational scale.

While benefits are important, though, necessity is usually a more powerful force in driving behaviour. The evidence shows that young people know that the returns from education are fragile, and it may be a long road to a rewarding graduate job. But as more and more employers ask for a degree for jobs that previously did not require one, young people see little choice. For the first time in 2012, the number of jobs requiring a degree in the UK outweighed the numbers that did not (Felstead et al 2012). The majority of these jobs are also ones that demand high skills. The 2013 ONS report also shows that graduates are nearly four times as likely as non-graduates to be in high-skilled jobs. And there is evidence to show that the future demand for graduates is likely to be strong. The UKCES predicted in 2012 that up to 80% of new jobs created would be in professional and managerial occupations, with another 2 million such jobs by 2020. Looking internationally, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute (2012) predicts a potential shortfall by 2020 of up to 40 million workers qualified to degree level.

Education is not yet seemingly losing all its power as a mechanism for transmitting economic advantage, but how it does this may be more complex than the data above imply. The research on average returns to education may be interesting, but it hides as much as it reveals. It is a fairly safe assumption to make that returns vary greatly by subject and also by institution, and the evidence bears this out. Work from the ONS shows that the average annual gross wage differs from £21,000 to £46,000, dependent on the subject studied (ONS 2013).

(p.91) The ONS research also shows that earnings differ by institution. Those from the more selective Russell Group universities, favoured so much in the social mobility discourse of the early 2010s, earn approximately £4 per hour more on average than those educated in the rest of the sector. And inequalities in the graduate labour market certainly appear to be growing. Walker and Zhu, in their work on average returns to HE described above, acknowledge that one of the reasons why the returns are so high is because they factor in the disproportionate impact that very high earners with degrees have. They also find differences in earnings by institution attended, but that these are largely accounted for by differences in the background of students who attend particular institutions in terms of gender, subject studied and prior qualifications. Further work from Macmillan et al at the Institute of Education (2013) also points to the importance of institution in defining progression to the top jobs. It is more important, for instance, than any advantage that those from more affluent backgrounds obtain because of their background alone. Hence, even for the powerful, education is crucial in translating this power into economic return.

The evidence outlined here clearly shows that the ability of education to confer advantage remains strong. HE still offers the best available route to stable employment that provides above-average earnings. Where the employment question is concerned, while for those educated in the 1980s and 1990s the data show that by their key employment years their education is paying off, we do not yet have data for those being educated in the era of near mass HE from the early to mid-1990s onwards. What does appear to be the case is that for the latter it might be a longer and harder road after HE until stable graduate employment is reached. The importance of this should not be underestimated. It starts to make post-graduate education appear more important, and it also puts more pressure on those who enter HE from less affluent backgrounds.

It could be argued that HE is more important than ever. It acts as the mechanism now by which entry to the vast majority of better jobs is controlled and, furthermore, even powerful, affluent groups retain their labour market advantages. The expansion in HE since the 1960s in the UK has primarily benefited middle-class groups (Elias and Purcell 2012). They understand that the jobs they want their children to enter now almost universally require a degree (whether the job needs one or not). So while going on to HE may be a gamble, many young people think they cannot afford not to make it.

(p.92) The second case for higher education

While the demise of HE as a provider of economic benefit may be a little premature, there are still warning signs that cannot be ignored. Taking forward a new vision for HE is dependent on there being an empirical evidence base to draw from, and the signs are concerning here. The percentage of graduates in lower-skilled jobs rose over 2001 to 2011 (ONS 2012a). Similar data have also emerged in particular from the US, and from mainland Europe and Australia (OECD 2012a). Graduate unemployment in the UK is also higher than most would deem desirable, at over 20% for young graduates (ONS 2014a). There is also research to show that average graduate starting salaries fell by 11% from 2007 to 2012 (BBC News 2014b).

The concerns about the ability of HE to deliver social mobility are not restricted to undergraduate students. A 2008 study pointed to a similar oversupply problem among research doctorate students (Group of Eight 2013).

While the research focused primarily on Australia, and quoted research from the US regarding the number of graduates with doctorates in low-status employment, the message is one that must be heeded by other countries. The economic risks associated with obtaining a degree are also far higher when the costs of HE are taken into account. The prospect of ex-HE students labouring under a significant debt for 20 to 30 years as they struggle ever to earn enough to make real inroads into that debt will be a fact of life for many (Crawford and Wenchao 2014).

At the same time as there being a need to address the education/employment relationship, however, the limitations here must be acknowledged. Education offers both less and more than the ‘global race for talent’ discourse allows. It does not guarantee economic security or progression, but at the same time it may offer more. It provides a range of other benefits that are essential to both the individual and society.

A surprising source of real support for this view has been the government in England in the early 2010s – or at least one minister and his department. BIS produced a paper in late 2013 examining the benefits of HE participation, aiming to give a systematic overview of the benefits of HE study to both individuals and groups, and to the economy and society. It argues strongly for a more holistic view of the benefits of HE study. Figure 5.1 is taken from this paper.

The BIS report is a very thorough exposition of the extent of the benefits of HE. It provides an extensive bibliography of research from across the world that supports every one of the benefits in shown in (p.93)

Unbundling, diversification and the ecological university: new models for higher education

Figure 5.1: The market and wider benefits of HE to individuals and society

Source: BIS (2013b)

Figure 5.1, and hence the more ‘holistic’ view of the benefits of HE. It is also careful not to exaggerate what is known here, especially where HE itself is concerned. Some of the evidence refers not to HE as such, but to the length of time actually spent in education. Despite the number of benefits listed in the bottom and top-left quadrants of Figure 5.1, it is still those on the right-hand side (especially the lower right) that gain most attention. One way of addressing this has been an attempt to put a monetary value on non-market benefits.

McMahon attempted to do this in the US, and estimated that the value of private non-market benefits was 22% higher than private market benefits, and the value of social non-market benefits was up to 88% higher (McMahon 2008). The New Economics Foundation (nef) (2011) estimates that universities contribute £1.31 billion to society. Using .social return on investments techniques, nef assesses the value of the greater political interest, higher interpersonal trust and better health that result from HE attendance.

(p.94) The work by BIS, McMahon and nef is crucially important. These ideas frame a different understanding of what HE does, but they have to be handled carefully. There has to be an economic return of some description to HE study. When the economic present and future is uncertain, it is politically unpalatable to have any understanding of the role of education that does not recognise this. Emphasising the multifaceted nature of the benefits of education could easily alienate policy makers and the public, whose primary concerns are financial. What good is the ability of education to enable improved trust or even better health if it cannot alleviate poverty, or worse, if it might exacerbate it by burdening students with debt that they cannot repay? There has to be a level of economic return that is satisfactory enough to answer this question, but it is this level that is not being discussed in the present discourse.

There is a prevailing short termism in how the benefits of HE are understood (Hackett et al 2012). If it does not guarantee a job in the first six months – or even six years – that is clearly fulfilling and substantially better paid than non-graduate work, then it is claimed it must not be worth it. However, it is what happens in your 30s and 40s that matters most where the impact of going on to HE is concerned and, as argued earlier, the evidence holds up well here.

However, the economic benefit agenda remains strong – and will become even more important as the cost of HE in England is so high. While championing the broader benefits of HE, since 2010 the government has been exploring ways of funding HE based on the economic returns to graduates, building on work done in the US in this area (The Economist 2014). The problem with such approaches – or the one that occurs in this case – is that they embed in policy the view that the returns to HE should be defined in purely economic terms.

However, nef and McMahon are individual voices. There has not been the kind of developed, empirically based thinking regarding what the benefits of 21st-century HE are, when they occur and how they can be developed to enable the economistic ideas to be countered.

Beyond access and the battle for the soul of higher education

There is still a strong case for HE participation as a societal/individual social and economic good. It may be an even stronger one in the early 21st century, but this does not on its own mean that HE is positioned to be the vehicle of holistic social mobility.

(p.95) The increase in number and diversity of learners has combined with a sort of marketisation similar to that described by Sandel in Chapter One, to bring a wider malaise to HE itself. The increasing numbers of students going on to HE as it becomes massified have challenged of the relationship of HE to the state (Trow and Burrage 2010). Funding HE entirely from public funds becomes an ever more difficult proposition. Virtually all countries that are experiencing mass HE are relying on some form of non-state contributions from the individual or private sector (Usher 2009). In England, the answer has been to implement one of the highest levels of tuition fees in the world (OECD 2011).

Combined with this massification has been marketisation. The default response to these twin forces, many argue, has been the rise of new managerialism in HE. New managerialism is defined by Deem et al (2007: 5) as: ‘the detailed restructuring of public services delivery, organization, and management in a way that facilitates a flexible, and changing balance, between “strategic control” and “operational control”’.

The impact of new managerialism has been to challenge the very ideas and practices on which HE is based. The organisational reality of everyday university life seems to suggest that for many, if not most, academics there has been a fundamental loss of control – over work organisation and professional culture – as universities have been transformed from ‘communities of scholars’ into ‘workplaces’. Activities designed to promote social mobility via widened access have been associated with this shift. As Deem et al argue:

Unfortunately, work to further social mobility via the access to higher education work described earlier has come to be perceived as part of this agenda, where outside forces in the guise of senior management and government impose on the academic community responsibilities and tasks which curtail what it means to be part of a university.

(Deem et al 2007: 12)

Closely related to this change in how universities are managed are further threats to the idea and practice of the university in the form of their marketisation. Brown and Carasso’s forensic analysis of the changes in the way that HE is funded in England over the last 30 years illustrates the reach of the market and market forces into academia. They argue that the funding of HE has changed to push universities to compete and behave in ways akin to businesses (Brown and Carasso 2013).

(p.96) This push to marketisation is more than just a function of how the funding and regulatory system has changed in one country; it is also a function of how HE itself is part of the global economy and how it has changed since the 1970s. As with social mobility, HE itself is not just the subject of socioeconomic change but also its architect. As Marginson and van der Wende argued in their 2007 paper for the OECD:

Being deeply immersed in global transformations, higher education is itself being transformed on both sides of the economy/culture symbiosis. Higher education is swept up in global marketisation. It trains the executives and technicians of global businesses; the main student growth is in globally mobile degrees in business studies and computing; the sector is shaped by economic policies undergoing partial global convergence, and the first global university market has emerged.

(Marginson and van der Wende 2007: 5)

The massification of HE, the questioning of its role and the way in which HEIs, their leaders and the state have responded have provoked a broader struggle for the soul of HE in the UK. Academics such as Collini have argued that the very purpose of HE is under threat from the actions of politicians and the drive to show that what universities do has to have external and measurable benefits. He argues that those in HE: ‘are merely custodians for the present generation of a complex intellectual inheritance which we did not create – and which is not ours to destroy’ (Collini 2012: 199).

In 2012, the Coalition for the Defence of British Universities was formed. It is an alliance of primarily individual academics who believe that the focus on employability, the encroachment of performance targets into academia and successive governments taking an instrumental view of the role of HE in society have distorted what HE is. The pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself by both researchers and students has been lost. There is an urgent need to defend this principle and the practices that go with it. It is tempting to dismiss the Coalition as some disgruntled academics concerned about threats to their own welfare. However, regardless of whether the changes in HE are a threat to any mythical soul of HE, the views of the Coalition are real. They also, to some degree, reflect the views of many academics in the UK (Parr 2014).

(p.97) Imagination and the role of higher education

HE is being pulled in different directions. It is attempting to balance retaining its ability to develop critical, reflective thinking and thinkers but also to provide the kind of tangible skills that enable its students to not just survive but to prosper in the 21st century. Attempts to keep faith with a classical vision of the university without recognising the changes that HE itself is undergoing look doomed to failure, but rushing to become an ‘education business’ and rejecting the history of HE and the intellectual and social capital that comes with it also looks to be a risk-laden route.

Barnett has written extensively on the mission and model for contemporary HE. He is very critical of the way in which the university is now ‘imagined’. He argues that: ‘[the] conceptual journey that the idea of the university has undergone over nearly one thousand years has gradually shrunk. [It]… has closed in…’ (Barnett 2011: 1)

Barnett sees those who espouse visions for the university at present as being reactive in the response to globalisation and what comes with it. They offer either the defensive responses described earlier or some version of the ‘entrepreneurial’ university, which inevitably (in Barnett’s view) trail behind the forces that they respond to. Each response also suffers, according to Barnett, from either too much pessimism (in the case of those concerned about the threat to the university) or too much optimism, as those who see economic and social changes as offering opportunity rush headlong to grab what might not be there. He feels that we need a ‘feasible utopia’ (Barnett 2013). His preferred attempt at such a utopia is the ecological university. Barnett argues that the university should embrace an idea of interconnectedness. A vision for it should not be afraid to seek to include individuals, institutions and communities in its thinking. Barnett describes such an institution as ‘the ecological university’:

The ecological university would be intertwined – at very deep levels of its being – with the global knowledge economy and with forces for marketisation and competition. But it would look for spaces in which it could live out the values and ideas deeply embedded in the university – of truthfulness, inquiry, critical dialogue, rational dispute and even iconoclastic endeavour.

(Barnett 2013)

Barnett firmly positions the ecological university between the polar extremes of the optimists and pessimists that he criticises. For Barnett, (p.98) it could give life to the ideas embedded in the university by public engagement through intellectual endeavour, the opening up of physical space, and so on. The most important manifestation of this public role, however, would be in what the ecological university seeks to achieve. It would seek to ‘promote well-being at every level’ (Barnett 2013)

This idea clearly connects the ecological university with holistic social mobility. A commitment to well-being creates the space for a pedagogy that could enable students to leave university with not just the ability to earn more money, but to have ‘successful lives’ along a number of dimensions.

In positioning the university in this way, Barnett further sees it as being prompted not purely by economic changes, implying that it should act more like a business or that its students should become more employable. More important are the wider challenges that globalisation implies – global warming, global terrorism and crime, energy crises and global diseases and hunger (Barnett 2012). This rationale presented for the ecological university strengthens the connection of the idea with holistic social mobility; it links HE directly to the sort of societal challenges that are also shaping the need for a new approach to social mobility.

Disruptive forces and massive open online courses

However, as appealing as the ecological vision is, realising it will be a challenge. As Figure 5.2 shows, the expansion of undergraduate HE in England in recent years has focused very much on undergraduate first degrees as opposed to different forms of HE provision at this level. Some signs of change can be detected at the end of the period up to 2012 but they appear temporary, as undergraduate first degree participation has increased again post-2012. There is clearly a huge way to go to develop a far more diverse form of undergraduate HE where provision is concerned.

There are significant cultural and structural rigidities within HE that, despite the protestations of those concerned about the threats to the academy from new managerialism and marketisation, act as barriers to innovation in HE (Bourdieu 1996, Huberman 1973). Martin Hall, drawing on his experience leading a large institution in England, points in his 2012 paper for the Leadership Foundation to the challenges in building the consensus for organisational change in complex institutions such as universities.

The extent of these rigidities implies that initiating the shift in thinking required to open up access to far more students may need (p.99)

Unbundling, diversification and the ecological university: new models for higher education

Figure 5.2: Participation in undergraduate higher education, 2005–2011

Source: UKCES (2015)

an external force (or forces) to initiate change. Online technology may have such a role. The most high-profile example of what such technology could do to HE is found in massive open online courses (MOOCs). These have brought huge number of learners in contact with what HE has to offer very quickly.

Some have described MOOCs as a ‘disruptive technology’. Christensen (1997) describes a disruptive technology as one that unexpectedly displaces an existing technology (UUK 2013). For others, however, MOOCS have all the hallmarks of a ‘bubble” where the interest and investment will rise quickly before bursting leaving little significant afterwards (Scott 2013). The evidence shows that, thus far, the majority of those who have signed up for MOOC-related courses already have significant amounts of education. And the majority do not complete the course they sign up for (DeBoer et al 2013). On their own, MOOCS are not necessarily mechanisms to make HE available to a more diverse group of learners. Neither is the ability of MOOCS to confer on students the benefits of conventional HE yet clear. If the courses are not accredited, will they have any labour market currency? They illustrate that the learner is at least committed to self-development, and past evidence where the trajectory of learners who have left HE early shows that they can still go on to progress in the labour market. But there are no formal entry requirements, so, unlike (p.100) in the standard HE case, entry itself is no marker of achievement to potential employers.

MOOCs do, though, represent a fascinating opportunity to understand better what it is about HE, if indeed anything, that leads to the non-economic benefits of the quadrant diagram (see Figure 5.1). They ‘strip out’ the normal experience of HE, leaving it in its purest form as subject. Even the kind of social experience that is associated with traditional distance learning is usually absent. The ‘social capital’ that some argue is as important a gain from HE as any form of intellectual capital does not work the same in the MOOC context. Many of these courses are taken by those who are already qualified. The majority of those who take them do not receive qualifications comparable to, say, a ‘real’ university accredited degree. This implies a huge rise in HE as a form of personal enrichment activity. Taking an HE course becomes explicitly something one does to enhance non-economic well-being. It opens up the possibility that different forms of HE could be a driver of both the economic and non-economic aspects of social mobility. The early evidence looking at why learners take up MOOCs shows that the majority are taking them mainly to learn, rather than for any form of economic benefit (DeBoer et al 2013).

But for MOOCs to act as a disruptive technology, as Christensen describes, they would have to have an impact on the mainstream of the HE offer. To do this would mean that core courses, for which either the state/employer/student were willing to pay, would have to ‘go MOOC’. Alternatively, MOOCs would have to grow in importance to such an extent that they become the core of what HE offers. For that to happen, there would have to be a viable business model underpinning them.

Where the disruption may be more likely is in MOOCs acting as a ‘Trojan horse’, forcing HE to embrace online learning in ways it had not previously thought possible. The more innovative models inspired by MOOCs are already going ‘post-MOOCs’ – seeking to combine what MOOCs offer with more concerted learner support. Harvard, for example, is already moving from MOOCs to SPOCS, or small private online courses (Coughlan 2013a).

The generic benefit of online learning is that it offers greater flexibility in how HE is delivered. This flexibility is what is necessary, if HE is going to be able to meet the challenge of further massification. The dominant model of full-time study over three to four years after the end of compulsory education is unlikely to suit everyone, and so there must be a greater range of provision. But the kind of shift in mission described above via the ecological university model will also (p.101) be required. If part-time, one- or two-year degree MOOCs are seen as add-ons to the full-time ‘gold standard’, they will never be able to deliver on holistic social mobility. There has to be a vision of HE that strives to see different forms of provision as equal. This equanimity is only likely to prove possible if different modes of delivery exist within a more overarching set of goals, which means establishing a narrative for the content of curriculum that is powerful enough to transcend these different modes.

Finally, while technology has the potential to enable a redefining of HE, the risk is that dividing lines will remain. As Geoffrey Crossick, ex-Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, stated in 2012:

The division may no longer be between those who get a higher education and those who don’t, but between those who get a higher education in a comprehensive traditional university and those who access it through a myriad of providers in often small learning modules. … [U]nless we think about the issues now as we imagine the new system, we might end up with a clear social dividing line between the two forms of receiving higher education.

(Crossick 2012: 12)

A pedagogy for holistic social mobility

Realising a model of HE that can drive holistic social mobility requires not only a shift in how the university is imagined at the macro level, but also a shift in how it goes about its business at the micro level.

The dominance of the subject discipline as the mode through which HE is delivered does pose questions about the benefits of HE and how they equate to social mobility. There has been much written in recent years on ‘graduateness’ and graduate skills, as well as the alleged mismatch between what graduates can do and what they are expected to do (CBI 2009).

The conundrum of how to inculcate students with generic skills through a model that is predicated on subject-specific skills has not been solved. While online learning has huge potential to instigate change in delivery, it is not clear how it will overcome the subject/skills disjuncture.

There are a number of possible ways to address the disjuncture, although none would guarantee success.

The first step would be to try to ascertain more clearly what skills HE students really need to develop. As in the case of schooling, the (p.102) subject/skills disjuncture is construed almost entirely as a subset of a bigger HE/employment disjuncture. The idea that HE graduates lack skills is constructed as a lack of skills that employers need (Archer and Davidson 2008).

The BIS report Supporting Graduate Employability (The International Graduate Insight Group Ltd 2011) encapsulates this approach. It frames the discussion around the development of skills and attributes that will enable students in the 21st century to progress and therefore be entirely socially mobile in terms of employability. Even in terms of employability alone, it paints a worrying picture; only a minority of HEIs focus on this area separately. For the majority of those that do, it remains in reality a peripheral concern.

But the desire to fit the 21st-century skills discussion into the employability straightjacket is the real concern. This is never clearer than in its use of the example of Macquarie University’s work in Australia in the employability context. Macquarie is attempting to develop a set of holistic skills in their graduates that go beyond preparing them for work. All students have to take a module in ‘People, Planet and Participation’ over the course of their degree. The module ‘provides opportunities for students and staff to actively contribute to more just, inclusive and sustainable societies through activities with communities locally, in regional Australia and overseas’ (The International Graduate Insight Group Ltd 2011: 36). This is interpreted in the report as a leading-edge example of how Macquarie is developing employability.

As with the secondary system, the danger with employability is that it ‘crowds out’ discussion about whether and how HE can help students to develop skills that may support progression outside the economic sphere, such as the ability to reflect on and formulate life goals, to cope with personal and emotional setbacks or to develop a sense of control over both work and non-work life. Returning to Figure 5.1 above, the question should be what skills graduates need so society can reap the benefits in the top-left quadrant as well as those in the bottom-right. However, as illustrated by the BIS employability report, the thinking required to really link what HE does, and how it does it, to these broader outcomes is not there yet.

The second issue in the skills/subject disjuncture is whether the development of such generic skills is viable through the teaching of specific subjects. Are there limits to which English, for example, can be a vehicle for the development of teamwork, workload organisation skills or the kind of resilience described earlier? Should graduate programmes therefore be remodelled to provide students with this broader range (p.103) of skills and include specific modules that focus on these issues, thus allowing subjects to concentrate on being subjects?

To an extent, subject disciplines, if taught creatively with a focus on the development of dynamic interaction between student and staff rather than using didactic, top-down teaching models, can enable some of these other skills to be developed. Part of the issue is their translation – there is evidence to suggest that one of the major contributory factors to the HE/employment disjuncture is that students are not always aware of the skills that they do have (Mourshed et al 2012). They have developed the ability to communicate and work in teams, for example, through their subject work, but the students do not pick out these skills when applying for jobs. There is a case for greater support approaching the point of exit from HE, to help students better appreciate and articulate their skill set (Mourshed et al 2012).

Third, the importance of subjects themselves as vehicles for upward economic social mobility cannot be ignored. The focus on generic skills obscures both the value of the subject itself and the extent to which they act, in themselves, as a vehicle for the development of wider sets of skills. The emphasis on the importance of these generic skills has provoked a response from established subject disciplines. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) disciplines argue for ‘embedded employability’ where it is within the discipline itself, as opposed to delivered via an additional or specialised course that employability skills will be developed (National HE STEM Programme). A further value in the subject-based approach, at least as expressed in the National HE STEM Programme report, is the emphasis on a student-centric (rather than an employer-centric) view of employability.

Established subject disciplines remain in themselves an essential part of any idea of 21st-century skills. Aside from the value of embedded employability as a concept, the HE offer itself is highly vocational in subject terms. The subjects with the most demanding entry requirements – medicine, veterinary science and law – are also the most ‘vocational’.

Accepting the importance of subjects, however, and the extent to which they may naturally incline students to develop the generic, there is still a major challenge to be faced. It is difficult to see how this can be done by subjects alone. The major problem with initiatives like ‘People, Planet and Participation’ from Macquarie (and other attempts to introduce personal development on a compulsory or voluntary basis) is that neither staff nor students buy into them sufficiently (The International Graduate Insight Group Ltd 2011). They are frequently seen as an irritation and not part of what HE is about. The only (p.104) approach is to combine a pedagogical focus within disciplines on development of ‘soft’ skills with specialist, compulsory modules along the lines of Macquarie.

Finally, there must be dialogue with students regarding what these skills are and how to articulate them. One of the problems is that, especially when students are paying such large sums for their HE, they want to do the course they paid for. Courses such as ‘People, Planet and Participation’ are not on the bill, and are perceived as a distraction.

We return inevitably to the macro-questions: the fundamental mission of HE and HEIs has to change, so that courses such as ‘People, Planet and Participation’ are seen as being as much a part of the student experience as any established subject.

The ‘unbundling’ of higher education

However, there may be a bigger set of challenges for HE to confront than just MOOCS and employability, if it is to retain its present position or to act as a driver for social mobility. Barber at al describe:

the growing impact of technology, which threatens many components of the traditional university… [T]his new competition is not necessarily only at the level of the whole institution, it is also competition at the level of each individual component. When this happens, the unbundling of the existing institutions becomes possible, likely or even necessary.

(Barber et al 2013: 32)

They describe this ‘unbundling’ as taking place across a range of functions of the university. In the teaching and learning space they point to how certain large corporations are already setting up their own educational pathways/institutions (The Economist 2013b). In research they describe the increasing contribution made by non-HE-based organisations. Regarding assessment they describe how the monopoly of HE in this field has now been broken. Finally, with the rise of online learning, the fragmentation of the learning experience is another aspect of this unbundling phenomenon. Barber et al (2013) shows how new providers are quite different from ‘traditional’ multi-faculty institutions. The idea of the university as a large physical site offering a range of educational and non-educational experiences becomes itself under question. Unbundling theory recognises that, as there have been in the last 30 years, there will have to be distinct changes in how HE operates in the future if it is not only to expand but also to thrive.

(p.105) Some of these changes are not so new. The HE sector in England is unified in name only. In reality, it is made up of an increasing number of subsectors (hence why different ‘mission group’ organisations seem to be able to survive). There are also new ones as what is defined as HE moves away from full-time, three-year courses for young people to something much more diverse and packaged in a greater number of ways. What MOOCs, for example, may have demonstrated is less how technology can change the pedagogic experience and more that it is possible to deliver an ‘HE experience’ that is shorter and quite different.

It will be a far greater challenge, though, as has been seen so far, in using such insights to deliver economically productive education, for example to groups who at present appear a long way away from participating in HE.


HE appears to be entering massification, if not entirely blindly, then with blurred vision. Where once it may have been a bulwark against a problem such as the success paradox, representing a place where alternative ways of measuring value in life can be explored, it is now being pulled into it. Many HEIs appear to survive by selling a vision of success that is craven in breadth and vision.

In strategic terms, HEIs and policy makers face a choice: whether to retain the model (based around three to four years of full-time study, with the main benefit being better employment opportunities) that has served well so far in educating close to 50% of any cohort of 18-year-olds in England and a small percentage of those who are older, or to diversify what HE does and for it to act as the framework within which the increasing demand for post-compulsory education across the 21st century is met and moved beyond 50%; or, as some politicians advocate, HE could shrink in size and return to a more elitist form.

From the holistic social mobility perspective, it would be better if HE could diversify what it does and act as the framework within which post-compulsory education occurs. There remains something in the character of HE that is critical, independent, reflective and, above all, holistic. The fact that it still aspires to something more than just the transferring of skill is so important, because it enables (at least potentially) a move to a broader conception of progress via education.

The alternative approach would be to offer parallel tracks, separating more clearly the academic and the vocational. As argued in the previous chapter, so many policy makers and commentators in the UK envy such an approach, pointing to its success in Germany; however, they (p.106) also usually fail to realise that these tracks end in some form of ‘higher education’. Over 90% of apprenticeships in Germany are delivered at Level 3 or above (The Boston Consulting Group 2013).

It is indisputable that, if the HE system is going to be the post-secondary framework, then huge change is needed. But as a framework it is the best one available, certainly in England. There has been a continuous flow of policies attempting to build a better alternative vocational track, and none have been successful. It may be better to recognise the cultural and structural context of education in England and to build on that. As pointed out earlier, HE has assimilated thousands of students who, as recently as 20 years ago, would never have dreamed of entering HE. Crucially, though, this means extending what is understood as HE, so that it can encompass 80 or 90% of any given cohort. It will certainly not mean that all young people should ‘go to university’ via three-year or four-year full-time courses at 18-19, paying tuition fees of £9,000 per year; it means that we should take the goal of all young people achieving HE-level qualifications or equivalent over the lifecourse and work back from there.

Such radical change needs to be built on certain principles. Rather than massification, the main such principle could be one of ‘diversification’. As a principle, it unites a number of different elements that are essential if HE is to be a vehicle for holistic social mobility. It includes both a commitment to changing those who go on to HE making the investment necessary to this via outreach activity and strategic commitment, that is, diversifying the intake. It also includes, however, diversifying what we understand as the benefits of HE increasing our knowledge regarding if and how HE participation affects well-being in the way described in Figure 5.1.

The diversification agenda for HE provides the context for the growth of the ecological university described by Barnett (2011). Unbundling is a powerful idea, but it implies that the uniqueness of what HE offers unravels. In the diversification context, this essence is retained but becomes part of a wider, richer experience. The question is whether HE itself is able to articulate a role for itself that can combine this critical and independent nature built on history with the kind of engagement with society and the economy. Can it diversify in mission and form? If the challenges that need to be overcome are too large, then it will continue to have a role to play where social mobility is concerned, enabling up to 50% of any given cohort to experience labour market progression

It may be reaching its limit, though. In the longer term, higher education participation could even be reduced. It is possible that it’s role (p.107) in social mobility terms could be confined to the kind of long-range economic mobility so favoured by many politicians today, delivered through a limited number of selective, research-intensive institutions with strong national and global brands.

The bulk of the other work on economic social mobility may instead be done by a rather different configuration of post-secondary institutions, or, in some occupational areas, by employers themselves (as Barber et al 2013 allude to), who may well have a much more vocational focus to their activities (IPPR 2013). If such organisations are better able to offer an educational experience that allows their learners to make economic progression (possibly because they are cheaper, or more bespoke and employer-focused), this will be good for those who participate. But they may also lack the kind of space and mission that allows learners to develop a set of skills which help outside the workplace, with negative consequences for holistic social mobility. (p.108)