Higher Education – in with the new

Illustration of New Horizons by Tang Yau Hoong

It’s inevitable at the start of a New Year to reflect on the twelve months that have just gone by, and to look ahead with anticipation. So having just completed my first year leading Pearson’s Higher Education business in the UK, I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts on what 2017 might hold in store for us.

What about Brexit?

Brexit, hard or soft, now looks almost certain to start in the spring. So what will this mean for universities and employers? No-one yet knows quite how this will impact UK universities – recent UCAS data suggests reasons to be concerned about enrolment trends, and whilst the government’s increase in R&D funding should go some way to plugging the loss of funds from Europe, many universities are undoubtedly feeling the pressure of this double uncertainty.

In the labour market, Brexit may make it more difficult to bring in skilled staff from overseas. It follows that the role our universities play in equipping students with the skills and behaviours needed to succeed in work will become ever more important - those institutions that can most clearly show the links between education and employment are the ones that will stand out from their peers.

And the prospect of visa controls could make it that much harder for overseas students to gain access to the life-changing opportunities that UK Higher Education can offer (HEPI explore this in their report on Brexit and HE, published today). Here, the role of online and transnational education is set to rise further – technology, and new delivery models, mean it’s now possible for students to benefit from great UK Higher Education, wherever those students are in the world. We see this clearly at Pearson – we are the global leader in online education, working with amazing partners like King’s College London to take their degree programmes fully online. And with operations in over 80 countries, the potential for blended delivery is one where we see great potential.

What about the world of work?

Brexit, of course, is just one of many forces at play here. What about the structural trends happening across the world of work? By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today – I have two of them myself - will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist. That means the skills that employers value are changing – if we look at the recent Pearson-CBI education and skills survey here in the UK, which reflects the views of nearly 500 employers, this showed clearly that employers don’t just value what people know; they value what people can do.

And with the Apprenticeship Levy coming into full force this year, employers are set to have an ever greater voice in our higher education system – in defining the skills and capabilities they most value. That, to my mind, can only be a good thing, driving closer engagement between the worlds of learning and earning.

This is something we’re very focussed on at Pearson. Take, for example, our rotational degree programme at Pearson College - students earn while they learn, and gain hands-on experience with world-class companies like IBM, Tesco, Unilever, WPP and Direct Line. Or take our Higher National qualifications, where we partner with employers, professional bodies and universities to ensure our qualifications allow students to progress to a full degree - if that’s the route they chose - or to move directly into work with the skills and behaviours they need to succeed.

What about technology?

The structural trends above (there are others) present all of us working in Higher Education with a real challenge - how do we ensure more learners can access affordable, high quality, effective education that allows them to progress in their lives?

This is where technology can help – technology creates opportunities to make learning more affordable, more accessible, more flexible, more personal and more effective. To be clear, this isn’t a panacea – great teaching and learning starts with great teachers, and with great pedagogy. But done well, and with the right focus on outcomes, technology can support and enhance great teaching and great pedagogy, expanding access and driving improved outcomes.

Online degrees are a key element here, one we’ve already touched on above. But 2016 also saw Pearson announce partnerships with IBM Watson and Microsoft Hololens, exploring new ways to help educators harness technology to enhance the teaching and learning experience. And I’d argue we’re only just scratching the surface – through data, smart assessments, and artificial (or enhanced) reality, we can and will equip great teachers to reach more students, and to ensure those students succeed.

Much to look forward to

So one thing is certain: 2017 will not be dull. With all change comes opportunity, and I’m excited to be working alongside colleagues here at Pearson and our customers across the UK to make the coming year a prosperous and productive one.