Universities must adapt to changing needs of students

Lord Martin Rees is the Astronomer Royal, Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at Cambridge, and Fellow and former Master of Trinity College.

Lord Martin Rees

University campuses are silent and deserted. Their life will be gradually restored. But nobody expects a reversion to the ‘old normal’ – nor should we wish for this. The current upheaval should energise and accelerate reforms to the whole higher education sector, which surely needs more institutional variety, and more flexibility in its offerings.

Students should be able to choose their preferred balance between online and residential courses (and to access ‘distance learning’ of higher quality, because of experience gained in  the current emergency). We need more facilities for part-time study and lifelong learning, and a blurring of the damaging divide between technical and university education.

The UK’s universities vary in quality, but there’s a systemic weakness: their missions are not sufficiently varied. They all aspire to rise in the same league table – which gives undue weight to research rather than teaching. Most of their students are between 18 and 21 – undergoing three years of full-time residential education and studying a curriculum that’s too narrow, even for the minority who aspire to professional or academic careers.

There’s a contrast with the US, where there are several thousand institutions of higher education: junior and regional colleges, huge ‘state universities’ (several world-class). There’s also of course the Ivy League of private universities – supplemented by liberal arts colleges (such as Haverford, Wellesley, and William and Mary) that offer broad and top-rated undergraduate education but not PhD courses.

A  degree is becoming  a prerequisite for many jobs for which it was not needed in the past – nursing or the police, for instance. Unless university admissions and courses become more flexible, this will be an impediment to mobility rather than a stimulus to it.

We should abandon the view that the standard three year full-time  degree is the minimum worthwhile goal, or indeed the most appropriate one. The ‘core’ courses offered in the first two years are often the most valuable, both intellectually and vocationally. Moreover, students who realize that the degree course they embarked on isn’t right for them, or who have personal hardship, should be enabled to leave early with dignity, with a certificate to mark what they’ve accomplished. They shouldn’t be disparaged as wastage: they should make the positive claim, as many Americans would, that ‘I had two years of college’. Vice-Chancellors shouldn’t be berated for taking risks in admissions, nor pressured to entice them to stay, least of all by lowering degree standards.

But everyone should have the opportunity to re-enter higher education (maybe part time or online). This path could become smoother – indeed routine – if the  government were to formalize some system of transferable credits across the UK’s whole system of further and higher education, as urged in the recent Auger Report.

Even though there may well be a transient glut of overall places this October, there will still, even this year and next, be competition for places on the most demanding and attractive courses. As always, there will be many 18 year olds of high intellectual potential who’ve had poor schooling and other disadvantages, and who do not have a fair prospect of admission to the most competitive universities. Even if they’re given contextual offers they will struggle with the most demanding courses. And even those who have been at ‘good’ schools will be handicapped if, because of the specialisation enforced by our A-level system (surely overdue for reform) they dropped at 16 the subjects which they later realize they wish to pursue.

Indeed, it would send an encouraging signal if universities whose entry bar is dauntingly high, Oxford and Cambridge in particular, were to reserve a fraction of their places for students who don’t come straight from school – to offer a second chance to those who were disadvantaged through their background, or their choice of A levels, but have caught up by earning  two years’ worth of credits online, at another institution or via the Open University. Such students could then advance to degree-level in two further years.

What makes Cambridge and Oxford unique assets to the UK  is that they combine the strength of top world-class research universities with the pastoral and educational benefits of the best American liberal arts colleges. A key challenge is to ensure that they remain accessible, without financial hardship, to those who can benefit from them most and to those who will, through their education, serve society best in their future careers.

It’s unrealistic to raise ten more UK universities to the top of the international research league. But there is a way to  counterbalance the unhealthily dominant allure of Oxford and Cambridge to students – and to widen access and promote regional balance. This could be done by boosting the funding (or the fee level) of some of our smaller universities so that they can emulate US liberal arts colleges (and Oxbridge colleges) in offering high-quality intensive teaching. This would be a welcome step towards a more varied and responsive system.

It’s encouraging that the Government have responded to the Auger report’s recommendations about 16 to 19 year olds’ further education. That report suggested reforms of higher education as well. To promote lifelong learning, it recommended that everyone should be entitled to three years’ support, to be taken ‘a la carte’ at any stage in life. This would encourage flexibility and would mean, for instance, that those who leave university for any reason after two years are not tainted as wastage, but can get some certificate of credit and an entitlement to return and ‘upgrade’ later.

Let’s hope that the current crisis catalyses reforms and innovations  in higher education. This sector is currently one of the UK’s distinctive strengths, and crucial to our future – but it mustn’t be sclerotic and unresponsive to changes in needs, lifestyle and opportunities. A rethink is overdue if we are to sustain its status in a different world.

This article was first published in The Times on 20 May 2020.

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