The CBI report into Higher Education

I recently attended the CBI’s launch of a  taskforce report on UK Higher Education Stronger together – businesses and universities in turbulent times. The event included speeches in response to the report by Peter Mandelson and David Willets, I’ve provided brief notes for each speech and the report itself where the central message was:”New thinking is required on the financing, structure and mission of our universities if they are to sustain and strengthen their position in a rapidly changing environment”.Urgent challenges identified for UK HE included responding to the changing needs of business, intensifying international competition and constrained public sector funding. A specific concern for the CBI was the number of annual STEM graduates declining by 20% from 1999. The report considered and rejected three options open to government: cutting research funding; slashing teaching budgets; and reducing student numbers. Instead, it suggested making savings from student support funding, arguing that:1. Universities and colleges should concentrate on quality rather than quantity. Any cuts should include a temporary cessation of the 50% recruitment target for HE.2. Educational funding priority should concentrate on raising the performance of schools.3. Student loans should reflect the cost of borrowing, saving £1.4 billion per year.4. Student grants should support those most in need, returning to 2006-7 threshold levels.5. An increase in fees is inevitable. A cap of £5,000 would increase sector income by £1.25 billion from 2014, without a decline in demand.Peter MandelsonUK higher and further education need to be seen as one rather than two separate systems, with an equal value associated with vocational and academic qualifications (mirroring the German system). This single post compulsory education system is an essential capacity cost for the growth and maintenance of UK PLC and as such should be viewed as part of a long game moving towards a digital/knowledge economy. This joint high skills system is industry’s fundamental supplier of intellectual/human capital and as such industry is, after students, the key client of universities. Both universities and businesses must get better at expressing the requirements and variables which affect this relationship. Supporting this vision is the rationale for the emergence of BIS as a department.  The system needed to provide more granular qualitative and quantitative information for potential students about institutions, courses, teaching and, most importantly, career and income outcomes. Aggregating and presenting this information would allow students to act as informed consumers. The student as consumer would in turn help to call time on failing systems and people within HE.David WilletsUK HE has always had a strongly vocational element and that 2 out of 3 current students are undertaking a course of study which is a licence to practice a skill/profession. The Conservatives endorse the Robbins/Murray principle: “courses of higher education should be available to all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so”. He also highlighted the need for more granular information on course returns for prospective students and the use of social networking to share information between current and prospective students.  He also suggested that the HE funding review also needed to have wider terms of reference than simply funding. Areas such as flexible provision, core funding by module, improved support for part time students and blended learning were all key issues. He also referenced the private HE sector’s use of technology to support learning and an interest in better understanding this area’s potential to increase productivity.ConclusionsReflecting the prevailing political weather, the event was framed by the “age of austerity” narrative. Despite free tickets for HE and FE institutions the event was only 2/3rds full, with a preponderance of educational rather than industry members. There was significant overlap in the two main speeches with similar areas highlighted in each (more detailed information on course outcomes available to students before entry, the development of shared services in HE and FE, better links between HE and apprenticeships and ICT changing patterns of study). During Q and A sessions questions were raised and sidestepped about the privatisation of current public sector institutions….

Green Computing

Improving the environmental efficiency of computers throughout their lifecycle (manufacture, delivery, installation, operation and disposal) will be one of the key challenges facing the ICT industry and the UK HE sector over the next decade. It is one of the priorities within JISC and key area for Industry Engagement. I have to admit to my own relative ignorance about the green ICT agenda before joining JISC late last year, but what has really interested me recently is the surge in mainstream media interest. Two stories made the front page of the Guardian recently:

I think that green computing has the potential to become a topic of genuine political and social significance over the next 18 months and it will be key for both public sector organisations and companies to not only engage with this agenda, but also to be seen to engage with this agenda. I think that universities in particular could face increasing levels of interest and pressure from their students to implement green ICT policies. Given the increasing competition for students during the next decade, a proactivce and visible institutional green ICT policy could become a competitive advantage for recruitment.

The Idea of a University

Understanding the current UK Higher Education system can be helped by looking at some of the precedents and models that underlie how the university has developed. Probably the single most influential text ever written on the university as a concept is John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman’s book – “the Idea of a University”. The book was originally delivered as a series of lectures following the founding of University College Dublin in 1850 (which was then the first catholic university in Ireland). Newman, as the first rector of the institution used these lectures to set out a normative of the university as a social institution.He identified the fundamental purpose of a university as an institution devoted to the moral development of a class of social leaders who would protect, guide and nurture wider society. As a result this Newman’s university was elitist in nature, operation and recruitment and had at the core of its teaching an established canon of classics, literature and religion. Newman was also fairly explicit in his view that a university was a place for teaching rather than research, a view that was fundamentally opposed to the quest for new knowledge which was at the heart of the German Universities and the Humboldt model.Despite the fact that many of Newman’s views now seem dated, he was one of the first writers to attempt to describe a blueprint of a university and to identify it as a fundamentally social institution with a clear social purpose and mission. He provides a coherent account of this vision and its rationale and as such subsequent models and blueprints have been framed by their reaction to his blueprint either building on it, adapting it or explicitly or rejecting it. The Idea of a University became a key influence on the perception of what a university was and should be for over a hundred years in the UK education system, an influence that only really started to wane following the Robbins/Murray report in the 1960’s when it was decided to expand the university system, by creating new “plate glass” institutions. Robbin’s and Murray essentially rejected the Newman’s vision of a moral and religious institution for the education of a cultural and social elite in favour of a larger and more egalitarian system that would support economic expansion through the delivery of new skilled workers.  Newman’s influence on the current HE system remains pervasive however, largely in terms of its impact on expectations both internally and externally to institutions and the sector as to the mission, purpose and standards of a university. The full text of “the Idea of a University” can be found online here: 

Wired magazine launches UK edition

The influential US technology and media magazine Wired ( has recently launched a UK edition ( The magazine is an institution within technology circles and whilst it has strong links with the major suppliers and silicon valley, its writing has always had a much broader social and cultural remit. It will interesting to see how it adapts a successful format to the UK market, especially given the strong public sector media presence of organisations such as the BBC, the British Library and the Open University.  Stories in the first edition included one on the development of the BBC’s iPlayer and another on key public sector infrastructure workers.

UK Demographics 2010 -2020

A key aim for for JISC’s Industry Engagement is to work with the private sector to ensure that their products and services meet the needs of the HE sector as closely as possible, both now and in the future. To this end it is important that we try to understand how UK HE is likely to evolve and develop over the medium to long term, and I will try to use this blog to identify some of the potential drivers for change. One of the main drivers for UK HE over the next decade will be demographic changes.

The demographic drop facing UK HE post 2010, has been well publicised, but it is sometimes difficult to visualise. I think that this graph, taken from the HEPI paper Higher Education Supply and Demand to 2010  (see is therefore quite useful



 In 2010 there are 2,070,000 18-20 year olds, by 2020 this figure will fall to 1,790,000, leaving a shortfall of 280,000 students. Assuming that the HE system achieves a 50% participation rate by 2010, this means 140,000 less students entering into the UK HE system. Given an average undergraduate body of 10,000 students for a typical university this would leave fourteen universities unable to recruit UK students. To complicate matters further if the demographics trends are examined more closely important variations emerge, regions such as the East and West midlands will suffer double the average drop and this will be front loaded (i.e the sharpest drop will occur from 2010-2015).  Ultimately  this suggests a much more competitive HE marketplace with institutions chasing much fewer students and the potential for institutional closures. In this type of market place Universities and colleges will need to offer competitive advantage in every area to students including ICT systems for administration, learning and teaching.

Ivan Illich

One of the writers who has had the greatest impact on me in the educational field is Ivan Illich.  His radical book “Deschooling Society” was written nearly forty years ago, but its description of learning webs and championing of a decentralised learning experience in which learners direct their own learning through peer to peer interaction and learning webs has become increasingly relevant with the advent of technology enhanced learning and the internet.

“Deschooling Society” is one a of a series of Illich’s books analysing the state of western society and public institutions. Like its companions it advocates radical solutions (removing both the formal education system and all qualifications in the case of the education system), but it is well worth reading for its sense of freedom and possibility. The book is pretty short (140 pages) and can be bought from Amazon or found free online in its entirety at:

 More information about Illich’s life and thought can be found here:

The Big Switch

After listening to a recent Paul Miller podcast with Nick Carr, I bought a copy of Nick’s book “The Big Switch”. In this he draws a parallel between the advent of cloud computing and the development of electricity into a utility. Providing an interesting cultural and technological overview of the history of electricity the book describes how initially each and every major organisation was responsible for generating and supplying its own power, with an attendant requirement for an in house department of electricians. As the technology for generating and transferring electrical power over distance improved it became possible for major electricity stations to supply power to companies at much more cost effective and constant level, eliminating the need for in house electricians.  The Big Switch identifies many potential similarities with computing, arguing that in the medium term computing power and technology will become regarded as a utility in the same way as electricity. The book examines the work of a number of key companies in the area most notably Amazon. Whilst some will agree or disagree with the books central thesis, its argument is compelling and its potential ramifications are worth investigating by anybody interested in the future of digital content or technology.

To merge or not to merge?

The current economic downturn will impact in multiple ways on UK Higher Education (HE). A key area of interest is the possibility of future mergers between major ICT suppliers to HE. At the moment interest is focused firmly on Sun Microsystems and its potential takeover by IBM. Talks appear to have broken down between the companies and IBM is wary of proceeding on the basis of antitrust suits in either the
US or EU. Whilst the economic climate would suggest that a period of mergers and rationalisation is likely the current speed of technological change makes any such process hazardous to potential buyers. I worked in two ICT SMEs that merged unsuccessfully after the dot com crash and the sheer scale of the major ICT suppliers adds a huge level of complexity and uncertainty to any venture of this type. My personal opinion based on experience of mergers in the private and public sector is that vertical rather than horizontal mergers have a greater likelihood of success, especially if the acquiring organisation has either the size and resources to fully integrate its acquisition into its culture and working style or the confidence to take an arms length approach in which the acquired company carries on its business as before the takeover. For these reasons I think that some of the best long term acquisitions during this period might be of SMEs, interestingly this appears to be the current policy of CISCO systems.


I’ll being using this blog to look at developments in the ICT sector and the UK Higher Education (HE) system and how they might interact with the work of JISC. I’ll also use it as a channel to flag JISC funding calls, publications and events that might be of interest to business.


One of the key challenges for JISC and business is to understand the future as much as the present needs of HE. I believe that the next ten years will see substantial changes in the structure and operation of the UK HE system and I will use this blog to identify some of the issues involved as I understand them, any comments, thoughts, disagreements or suggestions will all be gratefully received.