As we in the H.E. sector all know, universities in the UK are facing up to a very difficult future. During the last Labour Administration there was a desire to widen participation in H.E. to 50% of the population. Whatever the merits of this desire, the policy led to rocketing SSR levels and an unsustainable funding model hence the introduction of tuition fees to top up HEFCE funding. A system that was supposed to cater for the top 5% is now struggling to manage around 40% of school leavers.
Because students now contribute to their education there is, understandable from their perspective, a feeling that they should be treated as customers rather than consumers of a national resource. In turn, this has led to a multitude of “initiatives” to recruit students, retain them and enhance the student experience- all of which divert money from education to ancillary support services.
Worse still, universities want the money so bend over backwards to allow students to progress to graduation by allowing multiple resits, coursework marks to count as much as exam results, pass on aggregate, allowing progression to the next year if students pass the majority of the previous years work and so forth.
During the 24 years I have been in education my experience boils down to this. Pre-1997, I taught small numbers of intellectually able, motivated students to a very high level of academic achievement. Following the widening participation agenda I have seen educational standards plummet, academic rigour has all but vanished, examination results are a joke compared to the corresponding coursework mark plus the commitment and motivation of the student body has declined. I would summarise the average student experience of university as get wasted as often as possible, miss a good proportion of lectures/tutorials/labs, never read around the subject, never take proper notes because the slides can be downloaded from a virtual learning system, do some coursework at the last minute because of “problems”, revise frantically two days before the exam and hope to pass. If not, there are always the resits.
I used the word “average” in the last paragraph deliberately. I still teach lots of very good students. However, they are the ones I would describe as traditional university students i.e. in the top 5-10% of academic attainment pre-university. There are also quite a few that fall just outside the 10% who can be guided to reach a good standard.
The problem is clear to me. The myth that almost everyone can be educated to graduate level has had a highly detrimental effect on the reputation of the UK degree, has caused huge stresses on universities in terms of teaching loads / SSRs, placed an incredible burden on public finances and has given most of our graduates a massive debt to cope with just as they are about to embark on careers, buying houses and having families.
The solution is equally clear. Restrict the numbers entering H.E. to around 50% of current numbers and return to examination-only assessment. In addition, have a F.E. system capable of teaching what used to be HND level with opportunities for those students to transfer to H.E. in the final year.
Draconian? Yes. Unfair to some potential students? Most likely. However, if we want an internationally respected degree qualification that does not consume significant public money and does not place graduates in penury I cannot see another solution. Can you?