Lots of angst has appeared around what is now being dubbed the ‘student cliff’. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Worcester says there will be 10% drop in the proportion of UK students starting degrees this year, the steepest fall in 30 years. To be precise, he predicts a 70,000 drop in applications. We have already seen a 53,000 student shortfall. Then there's the catastrophic statistics on foreign students. UK universities get a third of their tuition fees from foreign students, yet Indian student numbers fell by 23.5% overall with a 28% drop in postgrads and Pakistani students by 13.4%, with a 19% drop in postgrads. Non-EU students coming to Britain for postgraduate courses has dropped for the first time in 16 years. The UK is now relying on Chinese students for growth but even these have dwindled and there’s every sign that China is doing everything it can to build their own capability. For the first time, no one is disagreeing about the falls. What we need to understand are the causes:
Demographically, the number of UK 18-year-olds will decline over the next ten years by 11%. This will have a long-term effect on University applications. Projections released this week from the US Department of Education show enrolment figures for 2010-2021 falling miles below the 46% growth experienced between 1996-2010. This is already playing out in California, where there is a demographic shift to negative growth, combined with crippling state debt. Overall, a new report has shown that the projected ‘pupil cliff’ will result in the “death of the growth agenda in the US”.
Scarcity creates value, commoditisation destroys value. Youth and graduate unemployment has gone through the roof in some countries and is still rising across Europe. The spectre of a high-cost degree with a low-salary future is starting to bite. A degree is no longer the goal but THE degree from better brand institutions. Because degrees have become commoditised, employers are also less interested in their value. Music, newspapers, retail in general, have all been commoditised through Napsterisation. The same thing is happening in learning.
Steeply rising costs
We have seen student costs soar in the US, UK and elsewhere, way beyond inflation and house price rises, yet the deliverable remains much the same. Remind you of the property bubble? Student loan costs have risen well above that of credit card debt in the US. When faced with student fees in the UK, many have chosen not to apply. Yet little has been done to lower the cost of HE which is still rooted in a high cost model based on low occupancy buildings, one intake a year, long vacations and inefficient teaching. Cost is pushing more young people to reject HE.
‘Debt’ is a dagger of a word that now strikes fear into people. It alone almost led to a global meltdown, is tearing apart the European Union, has led to massive youth unemployment and is NOT going away any time soon. To take on debt now, is to take on a massive risk. It will affect your ability to buy a flat or house, have children, sustain a credit rating, with no guarantee of a job with golden prospects. Potential students have wised up to this fact.
The medieval model of the University as somewhere that provides a huge breadth of courses, with a focus on research rather than teaching, has led to parking the relevance argument. We have seen dramatic drops in students applying for Universities in the UK, when they have been asked to pay £9000 a year for that privilege. Foreign student income (one third of all tuition in UK) is not geared towards this breadth but towards business and STEM subjects. Economic relevance is not the only aim of higher education but neither is the abandonment of relevance. We have to face up to the fact that relevance has become a greater factor in student choice,
Universities struggle with rapid, innovative change and governments are still stuck in the mindset of more degrees as an intrinsic good. Peter Thiel identified this as one of the fundamental symptoms of a bubble – groupthink. ‘The nth degree’ problem is the simplistic idea that the more degrees we fund the better. Forget the fact that the world has been brought to its fiscal knees by graduate bankers or that many of the skills we require are not taught, or taught badly, at our Universities, we need to reduce costs through the mass adoption of cheaper solutions, such as online learning. This, especially in the UK, has hindered innovation.
The race is now on. Different models are emerging that lower costs and increase reach and access. This draws students away from traditional HE. MOOCs, with accreditation (Signature Course from Coursera), are now available. Other models are emerging, such as separate online departments within Universities (UDOL – University of Derby Online), outsourcing to online delivery companies that have multiple yearly intakes, low costs and no VISA problems (Interactive Design Institute). These are, at present, modifications to the existing model. But there are other more radical, tectonic shifts at work here. There’s a genuine thirst for shorter, faster courses, that are available when you want them, more relevant apprenticeships and high quality workplace learning, and not just the 18 year old undergraduate meander through a 3 or 4 year degree course.
Unlike the fiscal cliff, there is no sign of any immediate solution to this problem, other than taking the pain. There’s no way politicians can do a 180 degree (sic) turn on this but that’s what’s needed. After decades of expansion, the whole system has ballooned out of control with quality, and now quantity, falling. The danger is in behaving like lemmings heading towards the student cliff without adequate planning.