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Friday 21 February 2020

Heard It at a ThinkIn

‘My parents said go to university to expand your mind – but it was just careers, careers, careers’

Five things we learnt about higher education (and the situation in Iran) in this week’s ThinkIns

By Liz Moseley

We’ve heard a lot at this week’s ThinkIns: about the situation in Iran and Richard Ratcliffe’s ongoing struggle to be reunited with his wife Nazanin, who is still imprisoned in the country; about potential solutions to the rising problem of homelessness; and about Ken Clarke’s life outside politics. We also held a ThinkIn about higher education – just before we published our #CampusJustice story – and whether it’s fit for purpose economically, academically and socially. Here are five things we learnt from that conversation.

1. In seven years, there’ll be 150,000 more 18 year olds than there are today

Dan Beynon is Head of Education at SMRS, a marketing business that works with educational institutions. He warned us that we will need more funding for all forms of post-school education – whether university degrees, apprenticeships or anything else – to meet the needs of the forthcoming demographic bubble.

2. Higher education is now a competitive market, but student dissent shouldn’t be treated like a consumer complaint

In a conversation that kept returning to the question of value for money, for both individuals and the country, Claire Sosienski Smith, Vice President of Higher Education at the NUS, reminded us that although the language of higher education is increasingly framed in market-economic terms, concerns over the quality of student life, and particularly student welfare, are as legitimate now as they have ever been.

3. Higher education isn’t in crisis, but it is having an identity crisis

Alfie Habershon recently graduated in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. He neatly captured the antagonism at the heart of the question “What is university for?” by contrasting his parents’ expectations for him with the university’s.

“My parents said go and expand your mind, you’ll think differently about everything, you’ll learn so much […] and then I went and it was just careers, careers, careers. Let’s not discuss this for too long because you need to get this mark to get into Deloitte and so on. But the problem is, it’s not doing either – the graduate employment rate or the broadening-mind aspect. For me, what is it for, that identity crisis? Those two things are quite different.”


4. The impact of the new regulator is still a big unknown

Sir Paul Curran, President of City University, was surprised that the question of regulation didn’t come up during the ThinkIn. The Office for Students was only established in 2018. Its stated aims include ensuring a minimal drop out rate, the best-possible graduate employment rate and that students feel they get a “quality academic experience” and value-for-money. The regulator also takes a keen interest in student welfare and has published a consultation into sexual misconduct and harassment on campus, as reported by Tortoise this week. You can read and respond to the regulator’s proposals here.

5. Students taking online courses have a greater risk of developing mental health problems

Although the Open University has existed for 50 years, universities are increasingly developing online programmes not only to improve accessibility, especially for long-distance study, but also to enable them to take more students. Sir Paul Curran told us:

“Everyone’s experimenting with going online. The problem in the UK is related to student mental health. The more students do in terms of online programmes, the less likely they are to attend and the more likely they are to suffer from mental health problems. So it’s difficult as an institution to get those things in balance.”


At this week’s ThinkIns we also heard…

During Monday’s conversation with the former Conservative MP and all-time political titan Ken Clarke, one of our members, Jo Varley, lamented the breakdown of trust in British politics:

“What I see is a breakdown in trust: trust between the electorate and all political parties, I’m not sure that there’s been a good performance from any if I’m honest. It’s also about trust between communities… divisions across our society and our political system and how to rebuild that trust and cohesion so that we can operate economically at our best in difficult circumstances… and come together because if we don’t it’s going to be worse…”

While, in Tuesday’s ThinkIn on Iran, Richard Ratcliffe described the latest prospects for his wife Nazanin’s freedom:

“Things since Christmas have escalated hugely between Iran and the West following the assassination of General Soleimani…. Where it leaves us? I think there may be some good news on that court case, there may not be. There is a risk of things getting much worse.”

We shall be following that case – and hoping for the best for Richard and Nazanin.

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Write to liz@tortoisemedia.com to share your points of view on  any of the subjects we’re talking about. Here’s what’s coming up next week.

Monday. A Tortoise Private View of Troy at the British Museum, London, 6pm

Tuesday. Is this the beginning of the end for the BBC? London, 8.00am

Tuesday. Weekly Open News Meeting, London, 1pm

Tuesday. Can we invent our way to net zero, or is it too late? Cardiff, 6.30pm

Wednesday. Is big tech out of control? Oxford, 6.30pm

Wednesday. Can we invent our way to net zero, or is it too late? Bristol, 6.30pm

Thursday. Living longer, financing well: Can your bank balance cope with your longer life? London, 6.30pm

Thursday. Can we invent our way to net zero, or is it too late? Southampton, 6.30pm

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