Every time any new policy or initiative is announced that has an impact on Higher Education, I have to admit that I feel slightly embarrassed by the “sky falling in/we’re going to hell in a handcart” tone that our sector takes in response. But I have a few friends who work in other sectors and they always remind me that they respond in the same way too, so I get over it!

Having said that, I do think we have an immovable problem with Government policy making on higher education in that it is totally dominated by people who are perfectly capable and intelligent, but whose education experiences and insights are shaped by two institutions that are far removed from the higher eduction that the vast majority students experience. By that I mean they gained their HE experience at Oxford or Cambridge.

I mean no disrespect to those two institutions, they are excellent in so many ways and their reputations alone do the whole of the UK HE no end of good. But the way they teach their students, the type of learning that takes place, the way students interact with academics and each other is a world away from anything that happens on any other campus.

I hadn’t really thought about this until I read an article written by Professor Alison Wolf in the Times (£). It is worth a read, she highlights the fact that all key players in the current Government Cameron, Clegg, Osborne, Cable, Willetts were Oxbridge educated, all five contenders for the Labour leadership went to Oxford, this is not to mention the dominance of the civil service!

Of course the article is behind a blessed pay wall, so here are some of the best bits:

All elites think they understand higher education, because they experienced it. But the distinctiveness of Oxbridge means that our elite has little feeling for how contemporary British universities operate . . .

A decade ago, the Government, along with 28 other European nations, signed up to the “Bologna Process”. This commits every signatory to standardising their university system, around three “cycles” (bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral). In addition, through the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS), students must collect a certain number of credits in order to graduate: normally 60 ECTS credits per year for a full-time programme.

Many countries have been reorganising their whole degree structure post-Bologna. We didn’t need to, but most universities did introduce a full credit-based system.

Does Oxbridge arrogance explain why our two best-known universities haven’t followed suit? No, something more fundamental. Their resources have protected, so far, the individualised practices of a bespoke or cottage industry. The rest of us have moved into mass production.

The vast majority of British degrees, including ours, are also now modular. Each course — typically from four to eight modules a year — is assessed, more or less as soon as it is finished, by the academic teaching it. Students build up marks and credits, module by module and year by year.

This is also the North American style, and we adopted it, gradually, for the same reasons. It suits a pressurised, competitive system. Modules can be dropped, or readopted, as staff leave, are hired, or bought out on research grants. If a degree doesn’t get many takers, you can fold it into an ever- greater selection of joint offerings. Cross-departmental options promise enticing economies of scale. Students can study part-time, drop out for a year, interrupt when their job requires it. And almost a third of UK undergraduates are now registered as part-time.

Lets not get too bogged down in the fact that Bologna does not compel anyone to do anything, and it’s not really about standardisation. The point about modularisation stands. Over 95% of UK universities operate a credit based systems for awarding degrees where student study a series of modules and accumulate credit that is all added up after 3/4 years and classification is calculated using an algorithm involving all their marks for each of the modules. This system has been widespread for almost 20 years. Oxford and Cambridge are the only two large universities in the UK that do not do this (the others are specialist HE providers with very small provision).

“So what?” you might think . . .

I’ve sat in many meetings, in Whitehall and Westminster, where people have talked up credit systems without the faintest idea that we have one. The middle-aged were educated in a different system; at Oxbridge, our future rulers still are. There, full-time students take final examinations set centrally, not by the people who teach them. They learn in tiny groups, and receive weekly personalised feedback on non-assessed work: by far the best way to learn, and something that has pretty much vanished elsewhere. And they are selected through intensive scrutiny of their work, and face-to-face interviews.

It is splendid and expensive. But students at Oxford and Cambridge pay exactly the same fees as in Newcastle or Plymouth. They do not see how different these universities are, or that the Oxbridge system is highly precarious, maintained by enormous cross-subsidies, endowments and rich alumni.

On current form, Oxbridge dominance looks set to endure or indeed increase. It might not, of course, if costs force both universities to slash quality. And it might not, conversely, if we made it possible and attractive for some other universities to promote intensive teaching. But our current politics, combining fiscal pressures with a protected Oxbridge elite, is bad news for the quality of undergraduate education

I am not questioning the intelligence of the policy making elite, or their desire to improve things, but if their core understanding of HE is so removed from the reality that they think something like modularisation is a new innovation, then we are in trouble. We saw this last year when David Willetts announced with a great deal of fanfare that he wanted to see Universities work with community (FE) colleges to deliver higher education. It’s been going on for bloomin’ years and continues to go from strength to strength!


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  1. […] Owen – The trouble at the top of HE policy making Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. October 10, […]

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