Our thinking on higher education is hopelessly skewed.
I’ve just applied to do a degree as a very mature old student, and been turned away after a perfunctory interview and rushed practical test. Just to apply cost £75. True, I don’t have the basic grades required (I have others) and didn’t perform to my strength in the test, feeling under pressure in an unfamiliar environment.
I can however show experience in and extensive knowledge of the subject (I wasn’t asked about that), a keen desire to study and improve to make up for my lack of academic grounding (what else is the point of studying for a degree?), a mature attitude, basic practical aptitude, developable skills – and I can afford the fees.
But I’ve been told I would not benefit from doing the course, that there aren’t enough ‘places’ for everyone who applied, so that’s that.
How crazy! Surely, it should be up to me to decide? It’s my life! And as for the number of ‘places’….
WHAT IF… anyone could apply at any time to do any course at any university, and only be rejected on the most extreme criteria? We would have a completely different outlook on education!
The guiding principle should be to welcome students, rather than weed them out. Would admissions departments be suddenly overwhelmed with huge numbers of applicants? Of course not! Applicants would have a lot more choice and time to choose, knowing they could ‘try-and-buy’ a bespoke degree over several years, rather than taking part in a mass annual egg-and-spoon race, where the egg is a career hand-grenade they daren’t drop.
Why must one person be debarred from reading for a history or biology degree because they only have an A and two Bs at A-level, while another gets in with two As and a B? Either of them stands a chance of obtaining at least a 2:1, but one has been excluded because – well, why? because they ‘failed’ to clear some arbitrary bar, or because an arbitrary limit exists on the number of places, regardless of demand?
These artificial barriers are set by the Government, but they stem, I argue, from a failure of imagination. The lack of educational funding is a ‘meme’ that haunts successive Treasury ministers; I submit that it is a chimera, and that with an expansion of facilities would come expanded funding: the money following the places.
Instead of limiting the intake to the number of places available (an arbitrary number!), with the full £9,000 a year tuition fees being charged (another arbitrary number) there is no reason on earth why the number of places should not expand flexibly to meet demand.
So, here’s a modest proposal. Why not have all-open universities, education hypermarkets, instead of closed, one-size-fits-all ’boutique’ institutions with brutally selective admissions procedures designed to limit access, creating an underclass of resentful outsiders and ensuring that academics don’t have to work too hard?
Anyone should be able to apply to any university to do whatever courses and even single units are offered, provided they can a) pass a standard aptitude test in reading and comprehension, b) demonstrate an interest in the subject; c) meet the fees, find accommodation and support themselves. The bogus reliance on A-level grades, that are clearly manipulated to ‘manage the numbers’, would disappear, to be replaced by an inclusive approach, that stigmatises no-one.
If not enough students apply for courses, those courses wouldn’t run and core funding would be reallocated to more popular courses. Any oversubscription would be met by contracting-in lecturers to run extra classes, increasing employment opportunities for academics. This flexibility already exists unofficially at the top of the tree, where the mobility of a few ‘star’ performers within a charmed circle is guaranteed.
More flexible funding options should be available to students; alternative delivery options explored, and attendance made non-compulsory.
Appropriate transitional educational learning support should be provided as and when needed, not compulsorily as an inductive ‘first-year’, and be available at any stage; even prior to entry.
It’s a more inclusive, flexible system, with two types of degrees offered: intensive, single-subject options and broader, multi-subject degrees awarded over any period from one to, say, seven years. Students would be able to take time out for work and travel, or even to interchange freely with other universities; to leave and come back at any time. Why limit access to one very narrow, usually three-year period?
Students should be free to choose whether to proceed to their degree by examination, by passing a set of modules, or by assessed coursework involving some original research and thought at present discouraged by faculties. (To suggest this is because undergraduates are not somehow ‘ready’ to have original thoughts is at best patronising.)
Universities should work closely with industry, not as factories for job fodder, but as creative resources, building relationships starting at undergraduate level. Undergraduates could be encouraged to work alongside PhD students. ‘Industry’ need not mean factories and banks alone, but all professional and artistic walks of life.
The MA master’s degree should be available on the same funding models as the BA: at the moment it is a lottery.
Students should be able to apply to have any aspect of their creative output, individual research projects or learning assessed at any time, and credits awarded for, for instance, meeting reading, writing or performance targets.
Students should be able to obtain credits towards their degrees for voluntary work, either in the community or within the university; for extracurricular activities such as sport or drama, and for completing longer ‘work experience’ placements, or undertaking external projects.
Vacation times should be abolished or limited to maintenance periods only: students should be able to access the facilities throughout the year and universities staff-up to meet the extra demand.
Many of these ideas should start in secondary schools.