1.1 The purpose of education is life-enhancing: it contributes to the whole quality of life. This recognition of the purpose of higher education in the development of our people, our society, and our economy is central to our vision. In the next century, the economically successful nations will be those which become learning societies: where all are committed, through effective education and training, to lifelong learning.

1.2 So, to be a successful nation in a competitive world, and to maintain a cohesive society and a rich culture, we must invest in education to develop our greatest resource, our people. The challenge to achieve this through the excellence and effectiveness of education is great. As Members of the National Committee of Inquiry we have been privileged to have the opportunity to review and recommend the direction of higher education policy over the next twenty years. None of us doubts the importance or difficulty of our task.

A vision for higher education

1.3 Over the next 20 years, we see higher education gaining in strength through the pursuit of quality and a commitment to standards. Central to our vision of the future is a judgement that the United Kingdom (UK) will need to develop as a learning society. In that learning society, higher education will make a distinctive contribution through teaching at its highest level, the pursuit of scholarship and research, and increasingly through its contribution to lifelong learning. National need and demand from students will require a resumed expansion of student numbers, young and mature, full-time and part-time. But over the next decade, higher education will face challenges as well as opportunities. The effectiveness of its responses to these, and its commitment to quality and standards, will shape its future.

1.4 We believe that the country must have higher education which, through excellence in its diverse purposes, can justifiably claim to be world class. As institutions will increasingly have to operate within an international market for education, they will all be judged by international standards. UK higher education must:

  • encourage and enable all students – whether they demonstrate the highest intellectual potential or whether they have struggled to reach the threshold of higher education – to achieve beyond their expectations;
  • safeguard the rigour of its awards, ensuring that UK qualifications meet the needs of UK students and have standing throughout the world;
  • be at the leading edge of world practice in effective learning and teaching;
  • undertake research that matches the best in the world, and make its benefits available to the nation;
  • ensure that its support for regional and local communities is at least comparable to that provided by higher education in competitor nations;
  • sustain a culture which demands disciplined thinking, encourages curiosity, challenges existing ideas and generates new ones;
  • be part of the conscience of a democratic society, founded on respect for the rights of the individual and the responsibilities of the individual to society as a whole;
  • be explicit and clear in how it goes about its business, be accountable to students and to society, and seek continuously to improve its own performance.

1.5 To achieve this, higher education will depend on:

  • professional, committed members of staff who are appropriately trained, respected and rewarded;
  • a diverse range of autonomous, well-managed institutions with a commitment to excellence in the achievement of their distinctive missions.

1.6 Institutions of higher education do not and will not fit into simple categories: they do and will emphasise different elements in their chosen purposes and activities: they are and will be diverse. Those which already have an established world reputation should be able to retain their distinctive characters: there should be no pressure on them to change their character. Their aim should be to sustain their outstanding achievements in research, scholarship and teaching. There will also be specialist institutions and individual departments which achieve distinction in the world community of scholars.

1.7 Many institutions will see their distinctive contribution in offering first class teaching. They will find innovative and effective ways to extend the opportunity for learning to a larger and broader section of the community. Some institutions will seek to interact creatively with local and regional communities. Some will see a distinctive role in applying the knowledge gained from research to addressing practical problems. Yet others will challenge their peers in other countries with ideas on some of the world’s most profound and challenging problems.

1.8 Such diversity and distinctive missions should be encouraged, valued and fostered by national funding schemes. While there will continue to be competition between institutions, diversity will become the basis for collaboration between complementary institutions to their mutual advantage, and to the advantage of the communities of which they are part.

1.9 Higher education needs continuity in the framework within which it operates to support its achievement of quality and distinctiveness. Government should avoid sudden changes in the funding or scope and direction of higher education. In return, the community, as represented by the government, has a right to expect higher education to be responsive to the developing needs of society and to be as zealous in the use of resources as it is in the pursuit of excellence in teaching and research. In this, higher education should be as ready to question conventions about what is desirable or possible in the way it operates, as it is to question established wisdom through academic enquiry.

The learning society

1.10 The expansion of higher education in the last ten years has contributed greatly to the creation of a learning society, that is, a society in which people in all walks of life recognise the need to continue in education and training throughout their working lives and who see learning as enhancing the quality of life throughout all its stages. But, looking twenty years ahead, the UK must progress further and faster in the creation of such a society to sustain a competitive economy.

1.11 In a global economy, the manufacturers of goods and providers of services can locate or relocate their operations wherever in the world gives them greatest competitive advantage. Competitive pressures are reinforced by the swift pace of innovation and the immediate availability of information through communications technology. When capital, manufacturing processes and service bases can be transferred internationally, the only stable source of competitive advantage (other than natural resources) is a nation’s people. Education and training must enable people in an advanced society to compete with the best in the world.

1.12 The pace of change in the work-place will require people to re-equip themselves, as new knowledge and new skills are needed for economies to compete, survive and prosper. A lifelong career in one organisation will become increasingly the exception. People will need the knowledge and skills to control and manage their own working lives.

1.13 This requires a learning society, which embraces both education and training, for people at all levels of achievement, before, during and, for continued personal fulfilment, after working life.

1.14 Experience suggests that the long-term demand from industry and commerce will be for higher levels of education and training for their present and future workforce. The UK cannot afford to lag behind its competitors in investing in the intellect and skills of its people. While the United States of America is a strong investor in higher education, and has high rates of participation, the Far East is increasingly setting the pace. In Japan, participation in higher education is already more than ten percentage points higher than in the UK and, with demographic changes, participation by young people there will exceed 50 per cent in 2000-2010 without an increase in total expenditure on higher education. A significant proportion of such participation is at levels below first degree.

1.15 The economic imperative is, therefore, to resume growth. In a 20-year context, participation rates by young people of 40 per cent or beyond have been canvassed by those giving evidence to us. This has already been achieved in Northern Ireland and in Scotland, with participation rates by young people of around 45 per cent. Much of the increase may be among people seeking qualifications below degree level, as in Scotland. Whatever the means of delivery and level of achievement, however, it is clear that growth in participation by traditional young entrants will need to resume. The present cap on continued expansion must be seen as a temporary pause following several years of very fast growth.

1.16 Traditional entry by young people is only one aspect of the need. The other, for the members of a learning society, is the requirement to renew, update and widen their knowledge and skills throughout life. This will influence the system, character and scope of higher education in very many institutions.

1.17 Apart from the economic imperative, there are other influences pointing to resumed growth. Unless we address the under-representation of those from lower socio-economic groups we may face increasingly socially divisive consequences. As a matter of equity, we need to reduce the under-representation of certain ethnic groups and of those with disabilities. Not least, there will be increasing demand for higher education for its own sake by individuals seeking personal development, intellectual challenge, preparation for career change, or refreshment in later life.

The characteristics of higher education in the learning society

1.18 Lifelong learning points to the need, overall, for higher education to:

  • be increasingly responsive to the needs of students and of clients (such as employers and those who commission research);
  • structure qualifications which can be either free-standing or built-up over time, and which are commonly accepted and widely recognised;
  • offer opportunities for credit transfer between courses and institutions;
  • adopt a national framework of awards with rigorously maintained standards, with the academic community recognising that the autonomy of institutions can be sustained only within a framework of collective responsibility for standards, supported by the active involvement of professional bodies;
  • work in partnership with public and private sector employers;
  • respond fully to the need for active policies for developing, retraining and rewarding its own staff;
  • maintain its distinctiveness and vitality through linking research and scholarship to teaching;
  • take full advantage of the advances in communications and information technology, which will radically alter the shape and delivery of learning throughout the world;
  • be explicit about what it is providing through learning programmes, and their expected outcomes, so that students and employers have a better understanding of their purposes and benefits.

Responding to change

1.19 Higher education has responded fully over the last decade to the national need for greater participation. It has managed this in the face of much reduced public funding per student. It has maintained its high reputation for research. The decade has been one of increasing demands upon staff, whether through increasing teaching loads, more effective administration, or through demands for more and ever higher quality research outcomes. They have responded to these demands in the service of society as a whole.

1.20 While traditional but still-relevant values must be safeguarded, higher education will need to continue to adapt to the needs of a rapidly changing world and to new challenges. In a period of discontinuous change, the future cannot be forecast from the past: what is clear is that a policy based on ‘more of the same’ is not an option. Increasing competition, particularly in the context of lifelong learning, will come from employers and training providers, in partnerships with major institutions of higher education possibly linked to the entertainment and communications industries, and from prestigious institutions overseas making extensive use of distance learning through modern technology.

1.21 The level of investment needed in a learning society is such that we see a need for those who benefit from education and training after the age of 18 to bear a greater share of the costs. As a result, we expect students of all ages will be increasingly discriminating investors in higher education, looking for quality, convenience, and relevance to their needs at a cost they consider affordable and justified by the probable return on their investment of time and money.

A new compact

1.22 At the heart of our vision of higher education is the free-standing institution, which offers teaching to the highest level in an environment of scholarship and independent enquiry. But, collectively and individually, these institutions are becoming ever more central to the economic wellbeing of the nation, localities and individuals. There is a growing bond of interdependence, in which each is looking for much from the other. That interdependence needs to be more clearly recognised by all the participants.

1.23 For the individual student, we see an institution committing itself through a compact which recognises its obligation to provide a high quality service and accurate information to inform students’ choices. A student, in return, will invest time, effort and money. At best the outcome will be, through lifelong learning, a relationship which lasts for decades.

1.24 In research, we see higher education taking a more active role in relating the outcomes of research and scholarship to the wider needs of society. We see industry and commerce, and a wide range of public bodies who have need of research, reciprocally making greater use of the knowledge and expertise which resides in higher education institutions. Mechanisms at national and regional level must help develop that relationship. We see an implicit compact between higher education and the world of work, based on how much each has to offer the other and the potential advantage in realising the mutual gain.

1.25 For the state itself, higher education has become a crucial asset. It must recognise what it will gain from ensuring the well-being of higher education. In return, as it has done in the past, higher education as a whole must recognise its obligation to society as a whole.

1.26 We believe that an adaptive, proactive higher education community will serve the UK well. By continuing to address cost and quality, it can make a major and recognised contribution to national competitiveness, which can in turn justify continued expansion. Reciprocally, higher education must be able to look to society for respect for its purposes, for recognition that funding to maintain quality provision reflects the national interest, not just the self-interest of institutions, and for recognition that the purpose of higher education goes beyond the economic to embrace all of life.

1.27 We think in terms of a compact between higher education and society which reflects their strong bond of mutual interdependence: a compact which in certain respects could with advantage be made explicit. A compact which is based on an interpretation of the needs of both sides at national, regional and local level requires continuing dialogue and a framework within which it takes place. It needs to be informed by disinterested advice. It should not be another 35 years before a group like ours looks again systematically at the issues.

1.28 When asked what we should be seeking to achieve in our review, one respondent said:

‘....restore both within the system and in regard to everyone who plans it and uses it, the kind of confidence that the previous Committee managed to establish within the 1960s.1 Morale within the system is lower than it should be. The confidence of the country is lower than it should be. I hope that what you produce will address both things.’2

We believe that the vision for the future and the recommendations set out in this report should raise both morale and confidence.