Is higher education at an all-time low?

February 2020

Last year, in partnership with Fora, Tortoise held a series of ThinkIns on the Future of Work. It quickly became apparent that in order to fully understand how our working lives will change, we also need to understand the future of education. And so we created a new series focused on the Future of Learning and exploring how we’ll equip ourselves and future generations with the skills necessary for our rapidly changing economy. 

The varied discussion illustrated that there isn’t one single solution to this challenge, but rather we need a wide range of innovative approaches to address growing student ambitions and expectations.


One of the audience members at Fora – Fitzrovia highlighted why this is such an important question, pointing out that in seven years time there will be 150,000 more 18-year-olds than there are today. That demographic bulge means the issue is not just which education options need to be developed – we will need more of all education options on offer. Sir Paul Curran, President of City, University of London and one of the event’s expert commentators, observed that higher education is already getting significantly more media coverage than in previous years and is becoming increasingly politicised.


Liz Moseley of Tortoise shared data showing that 84% of UK university students were satisfied with their experience, but as NUS Vice-President Claire Sosienski observed: “There’s really quick wins you can do to get satisfaction rates up, but you don’t get the whole picture.” Fortunately, as well as Fora Residents, the audience also contained a number of current undergraduates, particularly design students from Goldsmiths who shared their own stories on higher education. Clearly value for money is central focus fo students of today but there were diverse opinions on how that should be measured.


Number of contact hours was clearly a key concern for the Goldsmiths students and other recent graduates in the audience. Some felt the amount of contact hours provided didn’t always represent value for money. But others disagreed: “There’s a big disconnect between what students think they pay for. There’s a lot more than what you get in lectures,” said one audience member. Developing a network, learning soft skills, interacting with people from different backgrounds, even subsidised gym membership and access to clubs and societies were highlighted as important parts of personal development and the university experience.


“Expectations have gone up along with fees,” said Sir Paul. “Students want an experience that is much more personal and more transactional. Most institutions struggle with this.” Some universities are increasingly experimenting with novel approaches such as online courses. However, the technological possibilities don’t always produce the desired outcomes, often with disappointing results in terms of student progress and mental health.


Others agreed that universities were under pressure to both meet the current demands of employers and to widen access. Again, Tortoise had the data to show, for example, that 44% of employers were not satisfied with the aptitude and readiness to work of those leaving education. “We think of social mobility as being about giving those from poorer backgrounds the same opportunities as the rest of us, and university is an important part of that,” said James Turner, Chief Executive of The Sutton Trust. 


As this latest series of Tortoise ThinkIns at Fora progresses, there’ll be further opportunities for experts, Fora Residents and guests to discuss how our education system can best serve individual students, their future employers and wider society. It remains a key concern for all businesses operating in the UK. As our universities prepare to receive a new generation of young people, the importance and profile of this debate is only going to increase.

Interested in hearing more on this topic? Check out the Tortoise website for their full programme of ThinkIns, plus their ‘slow news feed’ and plenty more.