future of HE

Putting students at the centre of HE thinking

Nobody knows precisely what they want and exactly how to get it.

If you’re lucky, you can get close. But life isn’t exact. Things change. You change.

And we learn. University allows you to discover new things, find out more about your subject, and find out more about yourself. At least, that’s a big part of what it should bring.

Looking to the future (photo by ckaroli)

Looking to the future (photo by ckaroli)

From this perspective, you may have a good idea about what you would like to experience and what is necessary to move you forward in the ways you wish. But how that can be achieved and whether everything will fit into place perfectly isn’t a given. There is no exact science, however much you prepare.

Earlier this week, I attended the launch of a new book about the future of higher education, “Blue Skies”. I wrote a chapter for it, about the wonder of contradiction in HE. Yay!

Something that struck me at the launch event was just how much students were at the centre of the discussion. A good thing, since they are a huge part of higher education…

Rod Bristow, President of Pearson UK, said that the National Student Survey is being featured more highly and being used more prominently throughout the HE sector. Universities Minister, David Willetts, agreed and suggested that students are being put in a better position to control where money will go. By voting with their feet, students will make the calls.

Willetts further cements this point in Times Higher Education:

“The critics may dismiss this as mere consumerism. I call it harnessing the power of the student to put the classic values of excellent teaching centre stage once again.”

As a soundbite, this is impressive. As a reality, it is more complicated. Nevertheless, the power of the student can still be harnessed.

You can, and should, form a huge part of what goes on in terms of teaching, learning, research, and the future. In my chapter of the book, I champion the work of “Student as Producer” at the University of Lincoln, which tackles effective student action head-on.

There is no doubt, therefore, that students do have power to make effective change. Anybody has that power given the right circumstances.

Yet surely this power isn’t best actioned by voting with feet and calling a consumer revolution based on fees and a general sense of entitlement, even if the two issues require great consideration.

Frank Furedi puts this far better than I could:

“From a Socratic perspective the very term ‘student satisfaction’ is an irrational one. Why? Because students need to be placed under intellectual pressure, challenged to experience the intensity of problem solving. Such an engagement does not always promote customer satisfaction. Not a few individuals at the receiving end of a Socratic dialogue felt provoked and angry. Today, this old philosopher would not rank very high in a student satisfaction survey. So the question worth asking is ‘ought the satisfaction of the student customer be one of the central objectives of the university?’ From the perspective of the development of a stimulating and creative academic life, the answer must be a resounding NO! The moment that students begin to regard themselves as customers of academic education, their intellectual development is likely to be compromised. Degrees can be bought; an understanding of a discipline cannot.” [Source]

Conflict exists. But does it have to be this way?

Imagine if we lived in an age where fees didn’t exist. A time in which HE was fully funded by the state.

[I know that might be difficult, even hurtful, to consider, but hopefully you’ll get over it…]

If you didn’t have to pay fees, I’m guessing you’d still expect a certain amount of satisfaction from your course. It’s probably reasonable to assume you would not appreciate poorly communicated lectures, a lack of good learning resources, and a run-down atmosphere.

Undergraduate education can still be student centred. But it can be done in ways we have not yet imagined.

David Willetts wants better information given to prospective students. That’s great news. Obviously.

Now we need to carefully consider what information is best placed to help an increasingly diverse set of people choose courses that will work for their individual circumstances.

Nothing can be perfect, but that’s no reason to stop thinking about it altogether.

The chapter following mine in the new book is by former FT columnist, Stefan Stern. He makes a great point that may have been lost over the years:

“…what I shall tell my children in due course is that university is there for them to deepen their love of a subject and to develop as individuals. Job prospects, employability skills and building networks of ‘contacts’, must be a secondary or even tertiary concern. Study something that fascinates you, and worry about the future later on.” [Source]

Is now the right time to get back to learning for the sake of learning? Take pride in your work. Enjoy what you do. Get excited by education in the same way you treat your social life. We won’t be able to irradicate ‘Essay Hell’, but I firmly believe in the possibility that we can easily increase a genuine ‘Care for Coursework’.

What say you? Is this possible? What role should students play for the future of HE?

The irrelevance of degree titles

Would you like a degree in Waste Management with Dance?  Sound like a strange combination?  Apparently not that strange.  The course is available at Northampton University.

The Telegraph has reported on how the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) wants to see no change to the way it allocates funds to universities and, therefore, would allow all sorts of bizarre degree courses to continue.

I say ‘bizarre’, but what’s missing from analysis of HEFCE’s stance and The Telegraph’s view is opinion from students taking these courses.

photo by scragz

Might Stomp explain a degree in Waste Management & Dance?

A degree in Third World Development with Pop Music (or Dance with Equine Studies, if you’d prefer) may be perfectly sensible to students taking on the work.  Or perhaps those students are being led down a false trail of hope.  Or they just want a degree and were happy to take whatever they could in current climate.

Until recently, Media Studies used to face the wrath of critics who were ready to dismiss it as a pointless “Mickey Mouse” degree.  However, that particular stigma has disappeared as the years have gone by.  There may still be difficulties securing employment for many graduates, but that’s the same for many apparently worthwhile degrees.  Employability isn’t guaranteed in any field.

As universities cover an ever growing number of bases it’s not so surprising to find joint degrees that cover Waste Management and Dance.  For instance, you may want to combine a vocational interest with an important hobby.  Or you may want to further your experience in ways that cannot be covered with two similar subjects.  I doubt there will be much subject crossover in lectures if you study both Waste Management and Dance.

Many camps are keen to see HE as a resource for churning out employable individuals with a vocational talent.  But that’s never been the overarching point of universities.  You would expect a certain level of development to assist in employability and vocational expertise, but it’s not the sole purpose of HE.

That said, many students take the university route because they see nothing better in their circumstances or because they think it’s the passport to future career success.  Neither may truly be the case, but with a combination of more traditional careers requiring a degree and a lack of proper careers guidance and information for young people, I’m not surprised the situation has arisen.

Ridiculing degrees that sound stupid doesn’t help or prove anything.  Taylor et al explain:

“Barry Matthews, chair of the Professional Association of Teachers, suggested that teenagers were being brainwashed into thinking that university was their only option. Matthews questioned the need for vocational degrees, asking whether bricklayers needed degrees or practical ability, whilst he was also scornful of new ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees in surfing or soap operas (Matthews cited in Curtis, 28 July 2004, p. 8). It is clear that there are now many new degrees in the portfolios of universities. Degrees have in some ways replaced the old apprenticeships and the practice of in-house training. For example, studies in journalism and in nursing are now successful degrees. We suspect that there will be those who believe that universities should not teach such subjects and should stick to teaching more traditional disciplines. Such a position fails to take into account the changing nature of the job market and the changing interests of students.” [Source]

I don’t have an answer to conclude with here.  In many ways, I don’t see much to answer.  Any degree with little value to the learner should be scrapped, whatever the discipline.  I’m not just talking about employability skills.  For whatever reason, it could be an English or a Biology course that fails in providing value.  At the same time, a single university offering Criminology and Pop Music Production may give students an amazing insight that no other could.  Degree title is irrelevant.

Students and graduates need to be part of the discussion as to what courses matter.  Their voices need to be heard and they need to be told the truth about why their course exists.

Without proper grounding, it’s pointless to worry about funding based on course titles.  And while nobody takes my proposal for a joint degree in Mosh Pit Sciences and Handbag Psychology seriously, I’ll stick with that view…