Six types of modern student reflect how universities can build for the future
As universities begin to look beyond their initial emergency-response phase to the coronavirus crisis – locked-down campuses and stop-gap remote working solutions – they face questions about the fundamental roles of higher education institutions post-pandemic.
For many years, higher education in the UK has been organised, shaped and controlled by the decisions of largely autonomous universities, each offering their own (very similar) educational programmes. This has led to criticism that universities are more concerned with their reputations and economic welfare than meeting the diverse interests of their students, and that learners have to fit their differing aspirations and needs to what is on offer from the HE establishment. However, the unprecedented disruption caused by Covid-19 and the economic downturn forecast in its wake have created both imperatives and opportunities for a back-to-basics reassessment of who higher education exists to serve, and what it should provide for them.
Such reassessment must recognise the enormous diversity of the people who need access to higher education and their very different reasons for investing their time and money in going to university.
There are (at least) six distinct categories of modern students:
1. School-leavers transitioning to adult and working life
Higher education supports both the intellectual and personal development of young people who may (quite reasonably) be undecided on their future career paths. The subject matter studied by these learners matters less than the richness of the formative experience offered by university – as is recognised by the US liberal studies model of broad-based undergraduate studies, with specialisation coming mainly at postgraduate levels.
2. Students who want to enter regulated professions
For this group, externally accredited pathways from school into early career progression can be essential. This category includes those committed to traditional professions such as medicine, law and engineering. It may also include those looking for careers in nursing, policing, social work and teaching – all jobs on society’s front line. The pathway for these students emphasises practical experience, which must be modelled in close collaboration with employers. Such programmes can also include accredited apprenticeships.
3. Students with a passion for creative arts, music or drama
Wishing to develop their talents alongside their peers, these students learn under the guidance of established professionals in dedicated settings. These are usually standalone conservatoires and art colleges. The learning experience for this group is predominantly based around structured and mentored artistic practice, with relatively little classroom teaching.
4. Postgraduates developing specialised expertise
This type of study typically builds on graduate programmes and awards. As a result, it is usually delivered via taught-postgraduate programmes or research studentships. It is a highly attractive market for international students and requires close links with both leading researchers and innovative practice. Because of this, these programmes tend to feature predominantly at research-intensive universities.
5. Working professionals who are upskilling
These students are returning to education to stay up-to-date with developments in their fields. This often takes the form of mastering the new technologies, such as AI and automation, that are already changing their day-to-day working lives and have the potential to affect their future employability. Because they are already employed, this group is primarily concerned with having flexible access to “lifelong learning” and the practical relevance of the curriculum. This is an increasingly large category and a lucrative one because it benefits both the student and the wider economy. However, it has largely been neglected by mainstream higher education institutions, to the benefit of private and alternative providers.
6. “Second chance” students who are reskilling
This group may have missed out on conventional routes into higher education for a wide variety of reasons, but now wants to acquire the knowledge, skills and confidence to enhance their life and career opportunities. It is another increasingly large but underserved class of potential university students, which includes significant numbers of women, ex-offenders, ex-forces personnel and people with disabilities, among others. Extended periods of full-time learning are generally unsuitable for this group. Like several other types of modern student, they need flexible access to courses delivered both in-person and online, and to be well-supported by teaching staff. They are often studying with a clear goal in mind, normally to improve their employability, so need to be taught workplace skills alongside new knowledge.
The above list should tell us that the terms “students” and “higher education” now relate to many different cohorts, and that pre-existing models of “going to university” and “student experience” can set unhelpful limitations.
While Covid-19 has accelerated the digital transformation of universities, it has also highlighted the demand for a much more open, pluralistic and flexible system that meets modern students’ diverse needs. A number of universities have already worked hard to design programmes for different student needs, but a sector-wide effort is now required to meet this diversity of demands. Likewise, if the UK government is planning to restructure higher education after the coronavirus crisis, it should adopt a joined-up approach that embraces in-person, online and work-based pathways into both academic and vocational education.
There are plenty of signs that this is all achievable. The annual cohort of school-leavers is bouncing back from years of demographic decline and the UK government’s proposed “levelling up” agenda is designed to both increase the number of people entering professionalised public services and benefit disadvantaged communities, which should further boost demand for reskilling in particular. The number of employers who invest in upskilling is expected to rise sharply, too.
By working together in a range of open collaborations, universities, the government and employers can be challenged to design and deliver new forms of higher education, built around the learning needs of everyone.