University Education - The Need for Reform

28/07/2016 12:19 | Updated 28 July 2016

It was inevitable, I suppose, that universities would eventually lift charges to their students to take account of inflation. It was also inevitable that their ability to do so would be linked to the quality of the teaching. After all, if the student pays, teaching is what is being bought and, if the charges are to be at all respectable, the appearance of a bargain must be preserved.

A bargain? Really? Is that it? Are state and student to be regarded as somehow at arm's-length as if there was no common interest in the education of the young? Perhaps then we should do the same with schools. Don't go if you don't want to pay, and if that results in disaffected and uneducated youth communicating with the rest of the community in aggressive grunts - well, I suppose that is what we have a prison system for.

Aha, you may say, there lies the difference. Everyone has to go to school but not everyone has to go to university. Why should taxes from those who sweat to support themselves without degrees subsidise those who have the privilege of three years leisurely studying? To disentangle all this we need a starting point and perhaps the right way to begin is to ask ourselves why people go to university at all. There are a number of different reasons.

In reality most people go to complete their education. Secondary education ends with A-levels when pupils are seventeen or eighteen years old. At that stage they are relatively immature (forgive me, please, younger readers) and go to university as a general preparation for life. Here university functions as a sort of academic finishing school, neatly filling in the gap between adolescence and adulthood. Of course students will study a subject while they are there and no doubt that will develop their minds, but the fact that courses are so specialised can only reduce the quality of the overall education they receive.

Arts or sciences? English or history? Maths or engineering? One maths or two? These choices do not just have to be made when applying for a place at university. Many of them have to be made two years earlier when A-level subjects are being selected. So what are the results of that? Mathematicians and scientists who are not trained to express themselves outside the narrow confines of their subjects. English students, whose grip on figures does not allow them to understand the numbers-driven society which they try to write about. Voters who do not know enough history to understand why it went wrong when we tried it last time.

None of that makes much sense, but it will make still less in a society which moves away from the idea of a lifelong career. If roles are to change over a working life (which seems to be the current fashion in social predictions) flexibility is needed. That means a good general education with a focus on how to learn, not just a focus on isolated disciplines - a system which turns modern youth into Renaissance Man or Renaissance Woman as the case may be.

By these criteria the present system fails badly, leaving students with gaps in their knowledge like missing teeth in the mouth of a prize fighter. The only sensible answer is to replace A-levels with a baccalaureate and to devote at least the first year of the degree course to a far more general education.

Of course extending general education is not all that universities are about. They need to be fountains of scholarly research and to foster intellectual talent in specialist areas. This is a different role and must be filled in a different way.

When I was at university, I studied mathematics. To be honest I was not particularly good at it, my "glass ceiling" being (luckily) just high enough to accommodate the undergraduate degree. I attended lectures by world-class mathematicians but actually I would gladly have swapped a bit of the world classiness for a higher standard of lecturing. Along with other slightly pedestrian students I used to copy down the notes from the blackboard and that was much more exciting than it seemed because of a pulley mechanism under which, once a blackboard was completed, it disappeared behind its successor.

Picture the scene. The lecturer would have got to the bottom of the board and I would be scribbling along a few lines behind him. Suddenly "whoosh" the boards would be reversed so that the lines which I was copying would be hidden from view. That was bad for me and the slower students as we would have to reconstruct the notes with our friends afterwards. The really good students, however, did not need to copy the notes verbatim in the first place and moved to the next board at the same time as, and with the same enthusiasm as, the lecturer.

At tutorials there was a disparity too. For the really talented, being tutored by some the world's best minds gave insights which helped them to reach their potential. For the rest of us, although it was an exciting experience, we would probably have done better with less brilliance and a little more teaching technique.

Of course teaching at universities isn't just about the general education or the grooming of top minds. There are other things besides, career-orientated courses for one. Not everyone who reads medicine or law is planning a career in those professions, but many of them are and to that extent we are probably talking job-training just as much as education.

From the student's point of view it is impossible to disentangle all this. Who knows, at the age of eighteen, whether he or she will become a top academic or whether university is just a further step in general education? How do you know whether you will ultimately become a lawyer or whether, as you mature, you will find a different walk of life more interesting? The system has to accommodate everyone in a way which will inevitably be a little rough and ready. Nonetheless, there are a few general points worth noting.

The first, which has already been made, is the need to start with a more general education. You can put the case in various ways. You can say that there is no point in having scientists who cannot express themselves or arts students who cannot think numerically. You can point to the sheer inefficiency of a system which makes it difficult for a student who discovers that when he made his A level choices he misunderstood his true talent. You can point to the lack of the flexibility which people need if they are to be able to switch careers and use their leisure. Put it whichever way you like, there can be little doubt that the first year of university should be a far more general one.

The second point is one of recognition. There is a danger of over-emphasizing sheer teaching ability when assessing the quality of the courses provided. Yes, for most of us, good teaching ability coupled with a reasonable grasp of the subject will suffice. For the really talented, however, it reverses and the mastery of the subject by the teacher becomes all-important. The government is anxious to open the tertiary education to non-University providers. They will inevitably focus on teaching ability rather than on the reputation of their academics. All very nice for the run-of-the-mill student but not too good for those who should fly to the top.

Finally there is the question of money. There is already concern that some sectors of society (young white males for example) are becoming reluctant to go to university because of the costs involved. That is a tragedy, not just for them but also for society. It is certainly a very unfortunate by product of the problems of student debt.

Student fees do, of course, have some advantages. They make students feel more entitled to protest at bad teaching, leading to improvements in teaching practice at a number of institutions. They also make students more aware of the value of the education they are receiving. Perhaps then there is some merit in charging something, but it hardly justifies a level which creates a substantial burden of debt or puts young talented people off going to university at all.

The country is facing a period of austerity over the next few years. Money will be short in universities as well as everywhere else. Perhaps, then, fees will have to run at current levels in the near future. That, however, is very far from saying that the current high levels are in any possible way a good thing. As soon as we can afford it, fees should come down very substantially. The health of the country depends on its young people. In Darwinian terms it is more important that we look after them than that we preserve the triple lock on pensions for our own retirements.

Reproduced from the Shaw Sheet