Definition of higher education

5.1 After reviewing the context in which our work on higher education should be set, we considered the aims and purposes of higher education and the principles which should guide us. In this chapter we explain the definition of higher education which we adopted, we establish the purposes of higher education and we discuss the principles which were set down for us in our terms of reference.

5.2 Our terms of reference describe higher education as embracing teaching, learning, scholarship and research. These activities are, and should be, at the heart of higher education. But there is a range of associated activities which have increased in significance as higher education has expanded and become a greater element in national life. These include increasingly important contributions to the cultural and business life of local, national and international communities. We have been concerned to take a broad view of the meaning and role of higher education in our work.

5.3 We considered at an early stage the merits of broadening the scope of our studies to encompass ‘tertiary’ education. This term, which is widely used but not often closely defined, has been variously interpreted to describe:

  • all post-compulsory education – which in the UK would be all education at any level after the age of 16;
  • all education taken by adults – which in the UK would include a mixture of further education, higher education and adult education taken by those aged 18 and over; or
  • all education at a level above that normally achieved at the end of upper secondary schooling – which in the UK would include all education above Level 3 (A level and its equivalents) and equates to our normal definition of higher education.

5.4 We see merit in taking a coherent view of education. Higher education is but one part of an interdependent system of education and training, – it cannot be looked at in isolation. Any dividing line set between further education and higher education, or between higher education and higher level training, is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. This is true particularly for adults – for example, when making a change of career direction a person may need access simultaneously to a range of programmes spanning both higher and further education and training. But we had to set some boundaries to our work. We were conscious that our terms of reference directed us specifically to look at higher education and, even with that, we already faced an enormous task. We decided, therefore, to concentrate our attention on education above Level 3 (ie above A level and the Advanced Level General National Vocational Qualification (GNVQ)) and its equivalents in Scotland. We paid careful attention throughout our work to the relationship between higher education and other levels and forms of education and training.

5.5 We are also clear that our concern is not only with higher education institutions, but with higher education wherever it takes place. Universities and colleges of higher education are currently the main providers of higher education, but there are many other organisations, most notably colleges of further education, and also professional bodies, firms and private training organisations, which offer programmes of education or training at levels equivalent to higher education. In some cases, such provision is clearly identified as higher education and has a direct equivalence in terms of qualifications awarded or academic and professional recognition. Information about the full extent of activities which might be classified as higher education outside the formal education sector is limited and we have not endeavoured, in the time available to us, to survey the full extent of such activity or to make extensive recommendations about its future. However, we have sought to take account of how the role of these activities and their relationship with conventional higher education may change and develop over time.

5.6 In looking at research, we have concentrated on higher education’s distinctive contribution to the research base, recognising that higher education constitutes only a part of that base. Private sector companies and research institutes and a range of public sector bodies, as well as universities and colleges, carry out research. We have also considered the relationship between research in higher education and elsewhere, and the relationship between research and the other activities of higher education. We have sought to recognise the importance of research in support of regional and national economies, and the potential for further collaboration with industry and commerce in developing applied research.

Aims and purposes: the history

5.7 The first question which we asked in our written consultation exercise was:

‘What should be the aims and purposes of higher education over the next twenty years?’

Most of those who responded took as their starting point the Robbins report of 1963.1 The Robbins Committee identified four aims and objectives of higher education which can be summarised as:

  • instruction in skills for employment;
  • promoting the general powers of the mind;
  • advancing learning;
  • transmitting a common culture and common standards of citizenship.

5.8 The Secretary of State for Education and Employment undertook a consultation exercise in the autumn of 1994 which invited views on what changes to the Robbins’ aims were needed in the light of modern circumstances. The Education Departments reported to us on the outcome of that consultation exercise which showed that there was still widespread support for the Robbins’ aims, but that there needed to be a shift in the balance between them and some amplification and development to reflect the changing context in which higher education now operates.2

5.9 In the light of that, the Departments offered us their updated version of the objectives as a basis for our consideration. Their suggested objectives were:

  • imparting employment skills;
  • providing opportunities for adult lifetime learning to enable individuals, employers and the nation as a whole to adapt to changing circumstances;
  • promoting the general powers of the mind;
  • advancing learning and research;
  • promoting culture and high standards in all aspects of society;
  • serving local and regional communities, as well as national interests at home and abroad.

Our views

5.10 The aim of higher education is to enable society to make progress through an understanding of itself and its world: in short, to sustain a learning society. There are numerous ways in which we could classify and describe what we see as the main components of this aim, but, in the interests of clarity, we have summarised four broad purposes. They all overlap and interlink in important ways and are described in more detail below. The first relates specifically to the needs of individuals and the others to society’s requirements.

5.11 The four main purposes of higher education are:

  • to inspire and enable individuals to develop their capabilities to the highest potential levels throughout life, so that they grow intellectually, are well-equipped for work, can contribute effectively to society and achieve personal fulfilment;
  • to increase knowledge and understanding for their own sake and to foster their application to the benefit of the economy and society;
  • to serve the needs of an adaptable, sustainable, knowledge-based economy at local, regional and national levels;
  • to play a major role in shaping a democratic, civilised, inclusive society.

Inspiring and enabling individuals to develop their capabilities to the highest levels

5.12 Our vision for the future, outlined in Chapter 1, emphasises the need for individuals to be committed to lifelong learning and for our society to become a learning society. Education and training must be embraced by people at all levels of achievement and, to varying degrees, throughout working life and thereafter to enhance leisure and the quality of life.

5.13 Higher education is one player among many in meeting these needs, but it is likely to play an increasing role because:

  • as more people throughout the population engage in education and training more will reach levels of attainment which will enable them to progress to higher education;
  • the propensity to engage in continuing education and training is positively correlated with previous educational attainments. The number and proportion of graduates in the workforce is increasing rapidly, which is likely to drive an increased demand for continuing education. A recent survey showed that over 40 per cent of graduates aged between 30 and 34 had undertaken education or training related to their current job within the last four weeks.3

5.14 The traditional pattern of an extended, continuous, residential period of higher education taken immediately after school is no longer the predominant pattern of study. In future, a large part of the population will need access to higher education in some form at intervals throughout life. Many will still take a concentrated and lengthy programme of study in higher education, immediately or soon after school or further education, in preparation for entry to work, but this will be seen as only the foundation for the first stage of a career. Such programmes should explicitly prepare students to look forward to, and to manage their learning throughout life – so that they can plan and develop their own careers and gain fulfilment.

5.15 Not all students want, or benefit from, a full-time programme of higher education after school or college. Some will prefer to integrate higher education closely with their career development and job needs. For them, part-time study while in employment will be the preferred option. They will need a longer time than full-time students to reach a particular level and may need the flexibility to build up credits over a long period of years. Nor do all students want to enter higher education at the age of 17 or 18 – students who enter higher education for the first time before the age of 21 are already in the minority in higher education. Students who have work experience bring a greater breadth of experience to their studies and have more focused needs. They may well get more out of higher education as a result.

5.16 In the years since the Robbins report, but particularly over the last decade, we have seen increasing diversity in the backgrounds of those coming into higher education. Looking ahead, this diversity, and with it the range of requirements on higher education, may be expected to increase, especially if, as we urge, a national commitment to lifelong learning is achieved. More students will need to be able to take short programmes at varying levels to meet specific needs. Some graduates will need postgraduate-level programmes to deepen their knowledge and skills. Others may need to take programmes at undergraduate level or in further education to broaden or change their skills. Some will wish to pursue higher education from time to time to enrich the quality of their lives.

5.17 Thus, although all programmes of higher education should have the same general purpose of developing individuals to higher levels of knowledge and understanding, different programmes should include different specific objectives and learning outcomes.

5.18 The Robbins Committee saw two distinct strands to the work of higher education in developing individuals: imparting employment skills and developing the general powers of the mind. Both are important objectives for higher education, but we do not find it helpful to make a clear-cut distinction between them. The single most important capacity employers seek in those with higher education qualifications is intellectual capabilities of a high order. We take the view that any programme of study in higher education should have as one of its primary intentions the development of higher level intellectual skills, knowledge and understanding in its students. We believe there is intrinsic merit in this aim because it both empowers the individual – giving satisfaction and self-esteem as personal potential is realised – and because the development of the general powers of the mind underpins the development of many of the other generic skills so valued by employers, and of importance throughout working life.

5.19 There is a long history of highly vocational programmes in higher education in preparation for professions such as medicine. As more and more aspects of employment have become increasingly complex, it is inevitable and right that at least part of professional preparation should take place in higher education. Higher education must continue to have a role in ensuring an adequate supply for the nation of doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, pharmacists, technicians and so on. As the demands on such professions become ever greater, the need for the underpinning of knowledge, skills and understanding provided by higher education becomes more important. The essence of professionalism is a thorough and up-to-date grasp of the fundamental knowledge base of an occupation; sufficient understanding of the underlying theoretical principles to be able to adapt to novel circumstances and to incorporate research findings into practice; and appropriate practical skills and professional values.

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