Policy

Questioning the Implications of Two-Year, Fast-Track Degrees

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I’ve seen both joy and grief at news that the government are set to announce fast-track degrees that cost the same as traditional three-year courses.

I’ve also seen the many cries that this isn’t the first time two-year plans have been considered.

No matter how you feel about condensed courses, the first place to start is with questions.

Well, it’s how I like to start, anyway. So here are a few initial questions that come to the top of my mind:

Can all degrees translate into two years?

Can all degrees translate into two years? How will the quality of teaching, and the content on offer to students, be assessed? This is especially important for the first couple of student intakes.

How will the course structure work for students?

Will there be holiday time for students at all? Will there be time for extra-curricular activities? Will there be time/ability/flexibility for part-time work?

How will the course structure work for academics?

Will there be time for research? Will this situation result in two-year degrees in teaching-based universities far more than research-intensive institutions? Will this exacerbate a tiered system?

Speaking of tiered systems, could two-year degrees attract those from disadvantaged backgrounds, for the wrong reasons?

There are already signs that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to focus on the academic work, at the detriment of extracurricular activities and other pursuits.

Will emphasis on fast-tracking degree lead to even greater assumption that the degree is the main need for moving into the workplace? Will students from disadvantaged backgrounds be more likely to take on these courses, while further restricting them by focusing too much on the academic and not enough on other activities outside the degree?

What will universities do to show they are spending the same on the fast-track course?

The Guardian states:

“…universities would have to prove they were investing the same resources in the fast-track students as in those studying for a conventional degree.”

Do universities currently highlight how they invest their resources in each course? What processes (and what safeguards) will be put into place to examine university spending from a three-year offering compared to a two-year offering? And what if an institution decided to offer a course on a two-year track only? Work with historical spending data (that may not even exist)? Work on the basis that this is the first year of offering the course and exempt the institution from proving spending levels?

Will “First year doesn’t count” be replaced by an equally problematic situation?

That problem of the mistaken “First year doesn’t count” may well go, but the new problem could be that students will be expected to put in quality work from the outset. This may not be realistic, as academic methods of working require some getting used to at the start.

Will some people jump at the chance of getting the best of both worlds?

Could this flexibility of offering a fast-track degree help those people who are more inclined to jump into the world of work, yet who also want a higher level of education for the benefits it can bring ongoing?

What about universities getting the best of both worlds?

Some degrees cost more than others. By charging a similar fee level as three-year degrees, might universities see the possibility to make more money by offering fast-track on the courses that cost less anyway? More opportunity to boost incoming to support more costly degrees, research, etc. Positives and negatives to this for all and should be considered carefully before hastily implementing.

Can conversations be driven in a way that avoids hasty opinions?

Top-level statements of two-year degrees helping students, universities and the economy are not enough. The devil, as always, is in the detail. Yet these big statements aren’t meant for policy wonks and those delivering the teaching. The overall message sounds good to the public and can drive opinion. Therefore, as well as driving continued conversation and analysis in-house and with government, it’s important to find ways to bring that conversation through to the wider public so that they understand the potential impact (good and bad) of moves to fast-track degrees.

Where will applicant support come from and how will it be ensured as reasonable?

By providing this solution as well as more traditional three-year paths (and work-placement options, etc.), outreach work and applicant advice will need to be clear in explaining the pros and cons for each path. This should not be driven by marketing departments and vested interests. OFFA, et al, will need to have practical guidelines in place; preferably enforceable to some extent. I don’t know how this would look at this stage, but it would certainly need addressing.

If tuition fees remain the same, what about the psychological view of debt?

When students (and their families) weigh up whether to go to university, the issue of debt cannot be avoided. Applications to university may not have suffered a great deal, but there is greater resentment over the cost of attending.

Yes, a two-year course would remove a year of living costs. But the psychological view of debt doesn’t change. Tuition fees would stay roughly the same. If tuition debt is set to run at the same level, applicants (and, once again, their families) may continue to feel unhappy. It doesn’t matter how the payments work out in reality, the idea of debt can be enough to switch some people off from engaging beyond that.

These are just a few quick questions that need to be examined more closely when considering how fast-track degrees may work.

What questions would you add to the list?

Policy: Why a List of Power Shows the Real Winner to be Volatility

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I had a quick look at the Higher Education Power List 2016, over at Wonkhe. I soon realised I’d need a longer look, as the list is a different beast to last year’s offering.

27 out of 50 entries are new to the list. More than half. Let that sink in for a second.

Volatility is a big part of HE right now. It’s no wonder the short-term focuses more than long-term plays.

Only seven entries rise in the list, with three in the same place. 13 entries fall, meaning that most people who remain on the list since last year aren’t seen to be as influential as they were.

Richard Brabner says that judging who shapes the sector with their power and influence, “is not a science. It is subjective“. What we can see here is how consistency isn’t currently on higher education’s side. The HE Power List is an example of a lively—perhaps erratic—situation.

Higher education is not shielded from current events and wider politics either. Aaron Porter explains:

“For higher education the politics are significant. Not least because the Higher Education and Research Bill is making its way through Parliament, but also because it provides the crucial context and backdrop for the sector.”

Porter adds, “The world is a very different place, and so is the political composition of the 2016 list”.

Jonathan Simons echoes this. He concludes that, “making predictions as to what will happen over the forthcoming year is a mug’s game”. While David Morris talks of “The strange and sudden unravelling of the ‘Osborne Supremacy’” that has seen George Osborne go from top of the Power List to not in it at all from one year to the next.

And what about the student angle? Smita Jamdar says that “the student-university relationship [has] been pulled in many different legal directions”.

Jamdar explains that while students aren’t new to protest, they are focusing on more targets and looking more widely around the world. When you add social media power and the need for institutions to listen to their ‘consumers’, students are in a position to make things happen.

Student influence is not currently in the direction of paying lower fees (or getting rid of them in favour of another model). Their current influence is in changing the layout, experiences, and atmosphere of student life.

Although students have not made the Power List this year, is it only a matter of time before we see the student collective making an appearance?

The HE sector is being pulled in all directions. Perhaps volatility should top the Power List. Unlike George Osborne, chances are it would stay at the top of the chart the next year too.

Why Students Must Keep Consumer Attitudes Away From Day-to-Day Academic Work

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Jim Dickinson asked on Twitter why it’s so difficult for some “to imagine that students can both be customers AND learners”. A binary is so often assumed between students as consumers and students as producers. Why can’t people be both at the same time? After all, we see matters on a multitude of levels. Why should this be any different?

I agree. That said, I worry about the way in which some people use the consumer mindset. It’s easy to have good intentions, yet drift off toward a limiting conclusion.

Dickinson explains why the binary attitude doesn’t work:

“[Students are] usually pragmatic, complex, practical people that are bright enough to know that their outcomes need some personal effort, but increasingly hacked off enough to demand redress when the institutions they’re mortgaging their future on let them down.”

The ability to seek redress when something goes wrong is important. What’s difficult is keeping consumerist attitudes away from day-to-day academic work.

In a post on Quite Irregular, Jem Bloomfield refers to a paper which found that students with a more consumer mindset would achieve lower grades:

“The authors studied students from a range of British universities, and asked them to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with a range of statements intended to identify their attitudes, including their “learner identity” as someone who was engaged in intellectual development, and their “consumer orientation” as someone who was purchasing a product from the university. They also asked for the students’ most recent mark for assessed work.”

The paper concludes that “a lower learner identity was associated with a higher consumer orientation, and in turn with lower academic performance“.

Traditional school leaving students are already overwhelmed by the sheer number of changes and new considerations upon arriving at university. By introducing an additional layer of complexity that compels some students to look at value for money, there are potential dangers.

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Instead of coming to university with an open mind to enjoy and experience a wide range of what’s on offer, some students see the huge investment they’re making and keep their focus on only what they consider they are paying for. They break down contact hours from lectures and seminars into divisible chunks. Divide the annual tuition fee by the number of contact hours per year and *that* is how much it costs to attend a session.

Breaking down £9k into a per-lecture framework is sobering. And unhelpful.

The sobering effect can focus the mind on putting all effort into the academic work. It’s this added consumer element that creates a jarring effect. Students are shocked by their three dimensional life and react by putting their actions in two dimensional terms.

Bloomfield says:

“It frames a degree as something which they can just add to their existing collection of possessions. This prepares them to resist ideas which might call into question their previous assumptions, since this would reduce their already accumulated “store” of ideas, rather than adding to it. It also discourages them from taking intellectual risks, since these might damage their final mark and thus devalue the “product”, even if they might also result in personal development and new perspectives which could be useful in future.”

For decades, students in different subjects have compared their workload and structure of their degrees. One spends hours on experiments in a lab and have cosy lectures with just a few other students present. Another has a handful of lectures with a hundred others, losing much of that personal feel felt in a smaller group.

Even when the contact hours are the same, other differences are a marker of better or worse value for money.

This forces an even stronger consumer stance. It’s not about getting what you need, it’s about not being diddled. If someone else can have that level of experience for the same price, why can’t I?

Sheffield’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Keith Burnett, expresses his concern:

“[A powerful] but in my mind distorting, view comes from the idea that value of a course is not measured in cost or effort but simply in the quantity of contact hours. It is in the comparison between subjects that don’t involve practice and those that do that the sharpest comments arise.”

Such a focus on this limited definition of value doesn’t provide enough context. So those who want better value for money and focus on the transaction may get less value for money as a result.

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Even students who align their consumer focus to achieving the best academic results possible aren’t setting themselves up so well for the future. They work to the detriment of everything else for a top result when they graduate, but what other qualities and achievements can they showcase? Employers won’t be interested in how many contact hours they had.

In fact, employers are already less likely to focus so hard on a person’s academic study, choosing to look more broadly at candidates.

Yet research by The Student Room and the University of Sheffield found that 68% of A-level students now plan to take a postgraduate course after they graduate. Respondents mostly want to ‘enhance their career prospects’ and many also believe that postgraduate study will give them better chances of employment and better salary.

Spot the disparity. There are many good reasons you can give for taking up postgraduate study. Is the thought of having more chance of a job a good enough reason on its own?

The transactional side of higher education feels both valuable and damaging at the same time. Gaps could be widening at a time when people think they’re being bridged.

So how can individuals keep their positive three dimensional perspective intact? One way is to stay aware of the hidden value that exists where consumer ideas haven’t yet strayed. Another is to stay focused on the bigger picture as opposed to only what you think you’re paying for.

But if you must have it in consumer terms, think of the degree as the minimum viable product and you as the innovative business. You build your business to improve the initial product.

That product may start as a degree, but thanks to you–the business–it can grow into an irresistible package that’s worth more than the sum of its parts. Synergy-licious!

Why Bias Begins Long Before University Applications

How much applicant information do you need to remove before university admissions lose all bias?

Trick question. There’s always some sort of bias.

Anything attempting to level the playing field is better than nothing, but inequalities cannot be removed as easily as removing a name, or grades, or an institution.

As with Deloitte’s decision to ignore which university applicants studied at, the removal of names from UCAS forms is positive, but there is more to consider.

As Vikki Boliver says in The Conversation:

“Admissions selectors will still see each applicant’s home address, the school they attended, what they have written about themselves in their personal statement and what their teacher has written about them in their reference. All of this may provide subliminal clues as to an applicant’s ethnic and social background. Where applicants are interviewed as part of the selection process, the scope for unconscious bias becomes wider still.”

Social background can make a huge difference to applications. Lauren Rivera, author of “Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs“, explains:

“Whether intentionally or not, elite parents expose their children to different experiences and styles of interacting that are useful for getting ahead in society.” – [SOURCE]

In exactly the areas where people are meant to stand out, some find it easier to do than others. Inequality starts early and may not even be deliberate. People want to do the best they can for their children with the resources they have access to.

Those with a disadvantaged upbringing in some way are less likely to succeed in using the systems in place to build an impressive personal statement. And if they do manage to attend their university of choice and graduate, there are further hurdles to cross in creating CVs and making job applications.

For example, extra-curricular activities are often dropped in favour of getting the academic work done. Rivera has studied this too and she believes there should be “less weight [given] to extracurricular activities” as they are “a huge source of class inequality whether it’s in university admissions or in interviews”.

Striving for a First gets in the way of making do with a 2:1 while building up other achievements and industry experience. Yet these differences are what employers differentiate on.

When it comes to making name- and qualification-blind decisions, it may appear over time that the same people as before are getting the university places and job offers.

The danger here is that some people may see this as proof that some people are naturally more accomplished than others. They will conclude that the cream really does rise to the top.

If a lack of change is apparent, that doesn’t mean these new approaches to university and job applications will have failed. But it will show that applications are not the original source of inequality. Bias begins long before university applications. There are many variables, which begin much earlier in life and can be difficult to overcome.