I drafted the 50 per cent target for universities, now let’s go further




How do you teach pottery without a kiln? That isn’t a trick question. Last year, staff at Central Saint Martins art school had to answer it. They posted materials out to students as far apart as Cornwall and the Scottish Borders and took their course online. In return, students gave them a 90 per cent satisfaction mark.



They weren’t alone. Last year, with Britain in the midst of a third lockdown, staff at the University of the Arts London, the institution I joined last year as vice-chancellor, discovered inventive ways to teach students. In doing so, they proved that online learning works, and that it will be central to the future of higher education.



We’re out of lockdown. But university students continue to use digital tools to learn. They brainstorm online, design online and attend some of their lectures online. We shouldn’t be surprised. Universities are, after all, preparing young people for a job market where remote working and digital collaboration are the norm.

That’s not to say that online should replace in-person teaching. A campus experience is enriching for students. We should want them to work in our libraries and studios, to attend tutorials and seminars, to meet each other and their teachers. But we also believe that online learning can be blended with in-person teaching, to improve both, realms, and to expand access.



In 2019, England surpassed the target of 50 per cent of young people going to university, which I co-authored and Labour and coalition governments enacted. More people go to university than ever before. But universities are still turning away thousands of students who could benefit from a higher education.


Universities don’t do so because they want to be exclusive. They do so because of capacity. They’ve always been bound by the size of their brick and mortar buildings. By offering online learning, though, universities, like UAL, can free themselves from these constraints.



Over the next decade, this is what we intend to do, doubling student numbers to 40,000, with a majority of growth online. This will benefit students who can’t study with us in London, either because it’s unaffordable or because they’re already in work.



Opinion in Westminster, though, has turned against university expansion. In 2020, the government scrapped the 50 per cent target, despite the fact that 97 per cent of new mothers want their baby to go to university. So, what is driving this desire to reduce participation? And how can higher education answer those concerns?



First, we should acknowledge that this debate isn’t new. Nearly 70 years ago, Kingsley Amis warned that, when it comes to higher education, more means less. When Amis published Lucky Jim, just 3 per cent of young people went to university. At the turn of this century, 33 per cent did. Today, 50 per cent do. Every step, critics worried expansion would dumb down quality.


They were wrong. The opposite has, in fact, proved to be true. Today, British universities are ranked among the best in the world.



A newer question is the academic Peter Turchin’s “elite overproduction thesis”. He uses a modelling technique to argue that there are, in effect, too few job opportunities for the number of graduates we produce. If a graduate doesn’t get the job they want, they are left dissatisfied. They become politically radicalised and create social unrest.



In reality, though, there is scant evidence to support the theory. In his book, A University Education, David Willetts, a university minister during the coalition, debunks it. Investment in higher education, he argues, creates a more productive economy, increases the number of graduate jobs, and also raises the salaries of non-graduates. Our economy needs more graduates, not fewer.



There is no shortage of demand. Every year, UAL turns away more talented applicants than Oxford for want of capacity. Competition for places is to increase. The Higher Education Policy Institute predicts that 350,000 more university places will be needed in England alone by 2036. There is also a huge international appetite. In Africa, the population will double to 2.5 billion, with the average age falling below 18.


The irony of this debate is that, while the government has scrapped the 50 per cent target, it is actually pursuing a 100 per cent target. It’s called the lifelong learning entitlement (LLE) and would give all school-leavers £37,000 to spend on education over their lifetimes. This would, in effect, be universal participation for all school-leavers.



This policy will give school-leavers the power and resources to decide what and when they want to learn. It will be a revolutionary moment and lead to a massive increase in funding and participation. Demand will rise even further. And while not all demand will be for university courses, much of it will. Those who use their LLE to improve pre-degree skills will often want to attend university as the next step.



It’s an exciting opportunity for the country. But we won’t be able to meet demand through traditional in-person courses alone. We’ll need online courses, as well. The experience of the pandemic has proved that universities can do this. The government wants universities to return to “face-to-face” learning. We do, too. But universities mustn’t be discouraged from using online as part of their toolbox.



The 50 per cent target was right for its time. Rather than abandon it, we must now go for 100 per cent. Online learning will help us get there.



James Purnell is president and vice-chancellor of University of the Arts London