What Do Students Want From the Next Government?

What have you heard about the future of Higher Education in this General Election campaign? Political point-scoring and endless speculation around which party might prop up another for power makes it a challenge to hear much else above the noise...

What have you heard about the future of Higher Education in this General Election campaign? Political point-scoring and endless speculation around which party might prop up another for power makes it a challenge to hear much else above the noise.

With the United Kingdom set to go to the polls in what is being billed as one of the most unpredictable general elections in recent history there are pivotal questions for our next government to answer - questions that stretch beyond short-term policy solutions but underpin the long-term direction for the future of our students. While the debate about tuition fees and funding is massively important, there are certainly many other points that need to be addressed.

The first of those is crucial when it comes to enhancing the learning environment in our classrooms - that is the question of student diversity. We could simply stick the economic case for student diversity and mention the fact that non-EU students are worth £14billion to the national economy, but there is a much more important element to it. In an age where economic growth is directly linked to globalisation and how businesses operate in the global stage, it is absolutely crucial to ensure that our students are part of a multi-cultural environment from the moment when they start thinking about their careers. It's been proved that multi-cultural teams have the ability to outperform mono-cultural teams and, indeed, the economic success of London is based on its position as a global city - and that is a fact that no government should ignore.

The second question is whether there is a genuine commitment to expand access to 24/7, 365 days-a-year learning. In the UK the three-term system used by the vast majority of universities is ingrained in the British psyche. Online learning has changed that and will continue to corrode the enduring concept that dictates when you should study. 24/7 online learning will enable thousands more students - for whom academic terms and timetables simply do not work - to access higher education. There has been some progress on this front over the past few years and a new government should support and encourage this shift even further. Lifelong learning is a reality and the education system must be open to ambitious students who want to develop their skills further but are unable to take a sabbatical from work for full-time study.

Thirdly, there is the question of whether the next government will support integration between working and learning rather than separate the two. While there has been a greater focus on apprenticeships and vocational learning in the past few years, it is important that we move away from the idea that you can either go to university or get a job. There is no reason why anyone shouldn't be able to do both! Students don't just want a degree - they want a career at the end of their course. We have already seen some positive moves in this direction, such as the increase in courses that merge work and study. But more must be done to ensure our young people are fully equipped for professional environments. Again this is a question of making education more accessible to those who the traditional format isn't suitable for, and ensuring that business schools, colleges, universities and employers work together in order to equip students with the right skills.

Fourth, government needs to decide if they will commit to a greater acknowledgment amongst institutions that there is more to admissions than A-Level results. Despite rhetoric of the importance of extra-curricular interests and activity, so much still depends on A-Level grades. As such some really talented people, including many who have gone on to have extremely successful professional careers, are locked out of higher education or find themselves unable to study at their preferred institutions. We must have an inclusive approach to higher education.

Finally, the incoming government will need to recognise, celebrate and encourage a diversity of institutions. The more options students have, the more likely they are to make the right decision for their careers. With a fast-paced job market, institutions need to be open to innovation in order to respond quickly employers' needs. Increasing collaboration between the private and public sectors is an important step in the right direction, and students can only benefit from a wider offer of programmes, pathways and specialisms. International growth for our UK institutions is really important, and we should be welcoming to global institutions that can offer students with a more international approach to higher education. If done in a sustainable way, this convergence can help shaping a new generation of responsible global citizens.

These are important building blocks that future governments should look to improve. Students' interests, rather than ideological rhetoric, should be in everyone's priority list once again. The future and the economic success of any country are directly linked to the success of its students.

Professor Maurits van Rooijen is rector and chief executive at the London School of Business and Finance (LSBF)


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