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.