A new normal for higher education?

Today’s a big day for a lot of people. A-level results are revealed, determining the futures of thousands of young people. Many will want, and even expect, to go to university. But, as official figures have shown in recent weeks, not as many as you might think.

The number of young people applying to university is down. In many ways, this is unsurprising and perhaps a correction from the halcyon days when there was almost an expectation from government that every young person wishing to go onto higher education would do so. There were some solid reasons for the university push. It supposedly helped develop a more skilled workforce. And it very conveniently took a large section of society out of circulation within the jobs market and, therefore, the unemployment figures.

But those days seem to be gone. Suggestions that a university place means a more skilled worker have been largely debunked – and employers have suggested with regularity that new entrants to the workplace are often ill-prepared and lacking in fundamental skills. For their part, prospective students are – quite understandably – put off by the prospect of high tuition fees and incurring debts they could well be paying back into their middle age.

All of this conspires to create something of a new normal for higher education. It’s entirely possible, perhaps likely, that the drop in students applying to university is not a one-off but a trend. That has the potential to create what is essentially a buyers’ market. Fewer applications means universities can’t expect the same level of competition for places. And, in the long term, that might affect universities’ approach to how they market themselves. Higher education institutions are well practiced at marketing, but in a saturated sector there could prompt a renewed impetus of selling themselves to students if demand for places no longer exceeds supply.

The second consequence of this new normal is the increased importance on vocational training and adult education. The former has long been championed by government, and also by employers themselves. And if fewer students apply to university, it’s logical to assume more will look to go straight into the workplace, potentially pursuing apprenticeships and vocational training. That can be good news in one sense for employers – it becomes a sellers’ market for them, and they could potentially pick and choose. But it also comes with a responsibility to both test and demonstrate the robustness of the on the job training they’re able to provide.

It also potentially means a greater importance for adult learning, which will have been influenced this week by news that Learn Direct has failed to supress an Ofsted report that was withering in its judgement of the UK’s largest adult learning provider. Time will tell whether Ofsted’s assessment will be fatal to Learn Direct. But it certainly opens a door for challenger brands – if they’re able to effectively promote themselves, both to potential consumers and to government.