The university landscape in the UK has seen dramatic changes since 1992 when the former polytechnics were encouraged to apply for independent degree awarding powers and moved, from what had, until then, been an almost entirely teaching and training role, to invest more in their research capabilities. At around the same time there was a push to massively increase the number of students receiving a university education; when I was an undergraduate in 1973 about 7% of us went to university, now it is closer to 50%. As a result class size has risen as there has not been a proportional increase in the number of university teaching staff and there has, at least in the biological science areas that I am familiar with, been a tendency to replace whole organism practical classes with computer-based alternatives.
Another thing that has changed in the last few years has been the scrapping of maintenance grants and their replacement with student loans and the introduction of tuition fees. Maintenance grants, which I was lucky enough to receive, were means tested, universally available and paid directly to students. Tuition fees were paid by the respective Local Education Authorities and did not feature in a student’s world. We had no idea how much they were and no need to know. Now students take out loans for both their fees and maintenance, saddling them huge debts for a large proportion of their working life or forever. My daughter who was lucky enough to only experience the £3000 tuition fees, is on course to pay her loan off next year at the age of 33. Those who pay £9000 per annum are looking at much longer debt-ridden lives. Now that universities compete for students, and students rightly or wrongly, see themselves as paying for their education, the culture of universities and their view of students has, and not very subtly, changed and probably not to their benefit. The managerial staff now see students as customers and not learners and this puts pressure on the academics to deliver courses that students like and not courses that students need. Academics will know exactly what I mean 🙂 More positively, it does mean that most academic staff who stand in front of students have at least some teaching training and many now have a formal teaching qualification.
A particularly cynical recent development has been the ploy of selling the idea that shortening the time that students spend at university will benefit the students financially without reducing the quality of the degrees awarded.
“The two-year degrees will cost the same as a three-year course, meaning annual fees for them will be higher. Ministers are expected to table a bill to lift the current £9,000-a-year cap on tuition costs so that universities can charge higher annual rates.
The Department for Education has stressed that the fast-track degree would carry the same weight as the current undergraduate model. Universities will be able to charge more than £13,000-a-year for a three-year degree cut down to two years. Annual fees for a four-year course trimmed to three years could rise to £12,000 a year. The proposals will apply to institutions in England.
The fee hike would be strictly limited to the accelerated courses and universities would have to prove they were investing the same resources in the fast-track students as in those studying for a conventional degree. Education ministers think that the reduced timeframe will appeal to those who are in a hurry to get into, or return to, the workplace.
Those who take up the new qualifications would forgo the traditional long summer and winter breaks in exchange for the faster pace of the degree. Although the fees for each year could increase, it is thought the system would appeal to students keen to cut down on living and accommodation costs.
The promotion of two-year degrees was a manifesto pledge from the Conservatives. Universities minister Jo Johnson is expected to tell a meeting of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ body, on Friday: “This bill gives us the chance to introduce new and flexible ways of learning.”
You can read the full article here.
The Conservative Party, whose MPs are largely Oxbridge educated non-scientists, are very much in favour of this. They obviously remember their days as students with few lectures, long vacations and plenty of time to spend on the river or in their elite dining clubs, with careers in politics already assured, regardless of degree results. Proponents of the two-year degree, and note, that we in the UK already have the shortest university degree system in the world, obviously have no idea of a) how universities work, b) how students learn and c) what a university education is all about and d) science.
To put it succinctly and in words that politicians may understand, although as many of them will have gone to ‘crammers’ to ensure their entry to their elite Public schools, they may not. A university education is not just about learning facts and passing exams. Students need time to listen, read, think, experiment, digest, learn, analyse, evaluate, criticise, synthesise and importantly, make contacts* and even more importantly, enjoy life. When I interview students for a PhD position or a place on my MSc course, I am looking for well-rounded individuals with a zest for learning and life, the ability to think critically and to get on well with classmates and colleagues. I would most definitely NOT consider taking on a two-year biology graduate to do a PhD or job and I think that this would go for the majority of my colleagues.
Many universities already have four-year degree courses on offer and many more are setting up and planning new four-year courses. They and employers, recognise the value of that extra year in education, be it in an industrial placement or an extended research project. In my experience, graduates from four-year courses are much more rounded, both as people and as scientists and this is already apparent in their final year of study.
There is now some disquiet from a member of the House of Lords, Lord Adonis, that universities are planning on charging more per year for running two-year degrees than they currently charge for three-year courses. He sees this as a ‘rip-off’. If, however, as the government claim, that the two-year degrees will be the equivalent of the current degrees then that implies the same amount of resource will be devoted to them, so why should they be less expensive? You can’t have it both ways. Quality comes with a price.
Finally, it is not just the students, what about the staff involved with delivering the new degrees? One of the selling points of a university degree in the UK is that a significant proportion of the teaching is, or should be, delivered by research active academics. If this does go ahead, and I cannot see a lot of the research intensive universities doing so, I suspect that the staffing will tend to fall upon teaching only faculty with the more research active staff contributing to the longer degree courses. The ‘long vacations’ are when those faculty members with dual teaching-research roles, do their thinking, writing and research. The new proposal would definitely result in a two-tier system to the detriment of both the students enrolled on them and the staff tasked with their delivery.
If we as a nation, want well-rounded and productive graduates, then we should seriously be looking at extending the length of degree courses, not shortening them
Perhaps MPs should take a look at their own ‘term’ times. Think how much work they could get done if they gave up their long vacations 🙂
Something our public school Oxbridge educated MPs, don’t understand. Their privileged public (private if you are a reader from outside the UK) school educations, mean that they already have a well-established ‘Old Boy’ network to tap into.