University: quiet reflection or sharp, focused study?

The British Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, is not perhaps the most popular man right now in academic circles. He is presiding over substantial funding cuts, and in addition seems intent on redefining what a university education is and how universities might best deliver it. He has come in for a fair amount of criticism, some of it no doubt understandable. But what he says in not necessarily out of step with the views now held in industry, politics and maybe even society at large. And because his remit covers the English higher education system (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are separate), it is worth looking at his views more closely.

Perhaps one of the most detailed statements of his approach to date was delivered yesterday in his speech at the Lord Dearing Memorial Conference at the University of Nottingham. At the heart of it was a suggestion that a time of fiscal retrenchment and budget cuts could and should be used to reconsider what society’s expectations are of higher education and what universities should do to meet them. One part of that message was around funding and income, with the suggestion (that I would agree with) that public funding is unlikely to satisfy higher education needs fully and that institutions must actively develop strategies for attracting other income; and that in doing so they must increasingly identify and prioritise their special strengths and differentiated missions.

But it is his other suggestion that I want to refer to here: that there needs to be ‘a greater focus on alternative modes of study’. He went on to explain this in more detail, arguing that ‘part time degrees, shorter and  more intensive courses all offer the potential to lower student support costs, use resources more intensively and improve productivity.’ And here is how he explained why this is needed:

‘That is why, along side traditional three year full time degrees, I want to see part time study, two year Foundation Degrees and three years Honours courses delivered intensively over two years expand as part of the mix.  When their objectives and outcomes are clearly defined, and when they are taught well and properly resourced, there is no sense at all in which these alternatives should be seen as inferior to three year equivalents. And they can be, in many respects, better for students, especially for students without financial resources behind them. Because they enable them to earn and learn. They reduces the amount they have to borrow to get a qualification. And because these flexible kinds of education and training are vital for those who miss out on higher education straight after school the push for two year degrees and wider part time or work-based study should be at the core of the wider participation agenda. Those who argue against it risk painting themselves as defending an institutional inflexibility that doesn’t serve students, and doesn’t get the most out of public investment.’

There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the traditional university programme, delivered over an extended period of time, within an enclosed campus environment and requiring the student’s full-time attention (at least in theory) discourages or even excludes those from disadvantaged backgrounds or those who look for a second chance, later in life, to pursue a degree. Equally there are arguments to suggest that short degree programmes, or programmes focused deliberately on vocational links and outcomes will not adequately open the student’s mind to the intellectual underpinnings of higher education or give them the necessary time and motivation to reflect and adopt a critical perspective.

But then again, an intellectually driven education that can only really attract and retain a social elite may be attractive to that elite, but will otherwise almost certainly consolidate inequities and unequal opportunities.

So it all brings us back again to the dilemma on which all debate should really now be fixed: that the higher education framework that existed from the middle ages until recently has become untenable because it could not reach out to a broader population; but that we still tend to believe that its pedagogical approach was the most effective. We cannot go back to where we were, because society has moved on. But in the era of mass higher education we need to know better than we seem to know now what we want this much larger segment of society to get from their studies and what we therefore want our universities to do. We need to connect pedagogy with social policy, and we need to do that urgently. And we need to do that before we spend more time endlessly obsessing about higher education structures.

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7 Comments on “University: quiet reflection or sharp, focused study?”

  1. Perry Share Says:

    I think this is a very important issue to raise. In a sense the length of our courses of study is arbitrary. Even in Ireland, generally speaking, an honours degree can take four years to complete (TCD, the ITs) or three (NUI). Is there a strong body of opinion that NUI degrees are inferior as they are shorter? Are those who complete four year programmes more successful in further study or in the workplace? I do not know if we have robust evidence either way. Of course those from a German/central European university background might even see four years as a short time to spend in higher education. In Australia the 3 year degree is the norm, with only a minority continuing to a 4-year honours programme.

    And then there are substantial differences in the number of weeks within the teaching year, in my institution we generally follow (in theory) 2 x 16 week semesters; I am aware of one at least one UK university that has two 10-week semesters. In Australia it was 2 x 13 weeks. Then there are widely varying numbers of contact hours – even in my own department this ranges from 16-26 hours across courses. In universities these figures are of course usually much lower, sometimes only 6-8 hours a week.

    I know that in the calculation of European Credit Transfer System [ECTS] credits, the number of contact hours in Ireland is low by European standards. Does this mean that our students are being undereducated, or that they are exposed to a greater degree of independent learning? How would we tell? Is there any evidence as to the effects of this phenomenon?

    My point is that there does not seem to be a particularly strong international agreement on how to measure the quantum of education, in terms of ‘time spent in class’. There are of course all sorts of other issues, including those raised by Peter Mandelson, that relate the changing ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’ of HE, but I will leave that to others to discuss. Meetings to go to!!

    • Perry, another 4-year degree programme is that of DCU. This raises another question: about the value of a work placement as part of the programme. We are wholly committed to it and I regard it as one of our greatest assets. But how is this perceived across higher education as a whole?

      • Perry Share Says:

        It is also massively important for us, highly valued by students, and probably the main reason we maintain our 4-year programmes.

    • Iainmacl Says:

      tiny point there, Perry. In terms of ECTS across Europe it is not the CONTACT hours that are short, it is the total hours across the academic year. Typically in Ireland 1 ECTS would work out at around 20 hours of total student effort (includes contact, self-study, revision, assessment, etc) whereas in some other European countries it is closer to 25 hours per ECTS. Sorry about being pedantic, but its important, as you know, to not talk just in terms of contact hours, but rather in the total effort that is required. In rough terms ECTS is saying that if students are on a full-time programme then they should be spending 40 hours per week on classes, study, it is a full-time commitment…in practice, things may be different, but that’s what the ECTS/hours relate to.

      As you say, things are hotting up in Germany where the Bologna protests are still ongoing over shortening programmes down to 4 years, imagine what would happen if they were taunted with 2 years accelerated programmes!

  2. Colm Harmon Says:

    Interesting post – the evidence through research on access programmes, through emerging work from some of the graduate students here at the Geary Institute, is that the problem is not what happens to lower socioeconomic groupings in University but rather that they can’t get in because of the way secondary schooling rewards family resources. Work in progress by myself and some colleagues examines the socioeconomic gradient in grade outcomes and finds gaps. However, with some econometric magic you can simulate how the poorer kids would do if they had the same endowments of ‘skills’ and the same returns to those skills and a huge chunk of the differences in grade outcome vanishes when LC points are controlled for.

    This is early stage work – but it suggests to me that once you are in college (and that IS something the depends heavily on family resources), the University system does a good job of leveling the playing field – I called it ‘ctrl-alt-delete in first year’ this morning in talking to a colleague – and you don’t see the sort of differences by family background in terms of grade outcomes that you see in terms of leaving cert points. Work by colleagues on the Uni access programmes would confirm this general finding. If this all holds together as we work more on the data it is a major piece of news for the Minister….

    Caveats – the data we are using are from the seven universities so are by default referring to folks who (1) made it to college and (2) did not drop out. The IT sector report enormous drop out rates and the IT’s have more kids from poorer backgrounds (although this also to my mind reflects partly on the other issue in this sector – that some folks regardless of background are not cut out for higher education).

    Additional Observation – in looking through the same data (the Irish University Study) we also see that the students are in the main pretty happy with their lot. Three noticeable differences – they are debt averse (the law of unintended consequences from the abolition of fees is perhaps that it makes any debt incurrred for education seem horrid!); they don’t really see the value of the research activity of their lecturers although like on average the lecturing (so perhaps the Minister is onto a popular opinion); and they don’t think they get enough of what I would call hand-holding – sample exams, additional tuition etc (in other words some of the students would prefer the worst elements of the grind school system maintained in the higher education). All of these are issues the University sector are going to have to address.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Very interesting stuff Colm, which I presume points (amongst other things) to the impact of social and cultural capital on likely access and success in HE.

      While dropout rates may be high across the ITs (and one would need to look carefully at how they are recorded) there is a lot of variability across programmes; some (such as applied social studies, art or recreation studies) tend to have very low dropout rates. Also I have noticed some dramatic reductions in attrition in formerly high-drop out courses, one in particular. Part of this may be due to the more student-centred and active learning style of teaching that has been adopted, but a lot may also be due to the fact that students are not being lured into the labour market as they once were.

    • kevin denny Says:

      The other elephant in the room (well there is probably a whole menagerie of them) is school quality. There are big differences across schools which everyone understands [despite the official censorship of data on this issue] and this probably explains a lot of the gradient. By that I mean we know the variation exists but we don’t have a great idea of why exactly i.e. what makes a good school (although it is highly unlikely to be class-sizes). So if we could level that particular playing field & given what you about 3rd level then we would have a vastly more equitable and efficient educational system.
      For some recent evidence on the huge macroeconomic benefits of improving secondary education see:

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