2VCs on … are university degree models stuck in the past?

Education

David Bell and Alec Cameron.

Politicians, the media and the public tend to think about university students as 18-year-old school leavers who go away to study a degree full-time for three years, while hopefully having the time of their lives. But in reality higher education reaches out to a far more varied mix of people – or at least it should.

Against a backdrop of crashing participation from mature and part-time learners, the government is urging universities to think hard about how they can reskill the workforce and encourage lifelong learning.

In the latest of our 2VCs discussion series, Anna Fazackerley talks to David Bell, vice-chancellor of Reading University, and Alec Cameron, vice-chancellor of Aston University, about what the future might look like.

As well as experience on the ground at their own universities, both VCs bring a different perspective to this discussion. Before he took the reins at Reading, Bell was permanent secretary at the Department for Education, living through a hailstorm of different initiatives and four different secretaries of state. Cameron came to Aston from Australia, where he headed one of the country’s leading research intensive universities.

Reading is a traditional university with more than 50 research centres. It has not shied away from trying new things, with a campus in Malaysia and a branch of its business school in South Africa. The university was one of the founding members of Futurelearn, the UK’s “massive open online course” (Mooc) learning platform. It offers 15 free courses, with 800,000 people registering over five years.

Aston is a modern university with a very strong focus on the world of work. More than three-quarters of undergraduates carry out work placements as part of their degree. It has recently launched Aston Online, offering masters courses at a distance, including an online MBA from its flagship business school.

Are British degree models stuck in the past?

There has been a “substantial evolution” in higher education, Bell insists. But he adds: “I would acknowledge that for some groups of learners the system isn’t working as well as it might.”

Cameron points out that what universities are offering must be appealing because participation has increased to such impressive levels. “But I think we’ve ‘maxed out’ in terms of participation in terms of what is currently offered,” he adds. If universities are to reach out to new audiences they must change – and that must include rethinking pedagogy, he argues.

“The heavy reliance in many universities on large lecture-based education is a pretty ineffective and antiquated model of delivery,” he says.

“So what will the future look like, if students aren’t sitting in lecture theatres with 100 other students?” I ask.

“If we want to expand participation we need to look at what role online learning should play, and what greater integration between work and study might look like. We need to consider students attending university in intensive blocks of education, and how we utilise the almost half of the year when there are no lectures on campus,” he says.

Are shorter degrees the way to bring new people into higher education?

As part of his mission for more flexible higher education, universities minister Jo Johnson has been pushing hard for more accelerated two-year degrees, enabling students to gain the skills they need and then get on with using them in a job much faster. The idea has raised hackles.

“I think its entirely reasonable that two-year degrees should go into the mix, but I would be sceptical about it being some new Jerusalem,” Bell says. He argues that for young people, going away to university is a rite of passage; it is a process of transitioning into adulthood that most have no desire to rush. “I have talked to our own students’ union and they are very sceptical about the two-year initiative,” he says.

Young people may well be in less of a rush, but isn’t he ignoring mature students who have other family and life pressures and do want to study faster?

“The risk of this kind of debate is it assumes we have a single sector and one type of student,” Bell agrees. For older students at least he concedes that having the option of two-year degrees would be “a really good development”.

Cameron notes that taking students from diverse backgrounds is a big part of Aston’s raison d’etre.

“The way we get them job ready is actually keeping them for four years rather than three years. Eighty per cent of students do a work placement and we’ve demonstrated that is a great way of closing this gap in terms of social capital, which is what gets them a job at the end,” he says. “So the idea that we would take students from a less prepared market and push them through in two years seems to me to be setting them up for failure in the job market.”

Have universities ducked out of the part-time market because it is too difficult?

Bell is defensive. Yes, people have dropped out of the undergraduate market, he says, but most universities are offering “quite a suite” of part-time options, including job-related training and “executive education”.

He warns that the government will struggle to inject more cash into part-time learning to address the huge drop in numbers. “If you decide you want to invest more in older learners who want to come back into higher education, you will get pushback from others who are younger who are feeling the financial pressure,” he says.

Cameron argues that the government’s loans are a big part of the problem because they aren’t designed to tempt people who are already earning. “The attraction of a deferred income-contingent loan assumes you’re not going to be earning for a few years. If you’re already in employment and your salary is already above £21,000 – soon to be £25,000 – you don’t get the advantage that an income-contingent loan provides.”

He thinks instead we need to accept that people may drop in and out of the system – and make it easier for them to do so.

In Australia, the practice of credit transfer is far more established, meaning that students can resume their education at a different institution and know they will get credit for what they have already done at their last university, he says. This could resuscitate the part-time market, but he warns that universities need to run with this opportunity before the government decides to impose it.

Does more credit transfer mean fiercer competition for universities?

“It is a double-edged sword,” Cameron says. “You do end up with a situation where potentially there is competition for universities targeting not only school leavers, but also home and international students who are based at other institutions within their geographical area. It introduces the idea of current students as a market that is still in play.”

He argues that allowing students to move around and in and out of the system would bring more people in – “ and then it’s a bigger pie which we can all share”.

Bell points out that most universities already let students move courses internally when they’ve made the wrong choice, so there shouldn’t be an issue with this in principle. “We need to step up to make it easier for students who don’t just want to change course, who want to change the time at which they do the course and potentially to change the institution,” he says.

Is our approach to online learning keeping up with the times?

As the part-time market has declined so too have the numbers of students studying online. Bell thinks the online market hasn’t yet settled and universities are still experimenting. He says Reading has learned a lot from its foray into Moocs and plans to bring an online dimension into more courses, especially in the business school.

Cameron has reservations about school leavers doing degrees online, arguing that they need the “socialisation element” of university. But Aston is very deliberately moving its postgraduate taught programmes that way. “For part-time postgraduate students my view is that one of the biggest barriers to participation is family, work and travel commitments,” he says.

His vision is for universities to bring together all the different study options – accelerated learning, on-campus teaching and online – and allow students to choose whatever mode suits them for a particular module or a particular time in their lives. He gives the example at Aston of a new degree apprenticeship where the first part of the programme is intensive learning at the university, and then when students are on site with their employer that is topped up by online learning.

Did the Mooc revolution happen?

Moocs were heralded as the revolution that would shake up traditional
universities, but the hype has faded.

Bell is surprisingly frank about why Reading joined Futurelearn. “We didn’t quite know what it would mean but we thought it was probably better to be in for a relatively low investment than not to be in.” He says he has no regrets – Reading’s free courses have reached an impressive number of students. But the university has no plans to expand in this area.

I point out that the majority of Futurelearn’s students have been people who already have degrees. Does it matter to Bell that, contrary to the early promises, they haven’t been bringing in new audiences?

“Be very suspicious of anyone who has the ‘next big thing’ that is going to transform higher education,” he responds. “Life is rarely like that. We have reached a lot of the people you describe, but also a lot of people who have just got interested in a particular subject.”

He adds that a lot of the work-oriented Moocs in the health area have been extremely popular. “We’ve been learning about a different way of making academic knowledge available to people who want to use it in bitesize chunks,” he explains.

Cameron, who took the University of Western Australia into the Coursera Mooc platform, thinks that one of the most interesting things to emerge from this experiment is the move by some universities in the US to aggregate these “micro-credentials” so that they count towards a qualification. “I think that’s interesting in the context of how part-time and mature learners will engage with education,” he says.

Will we see more bitesize learning?

“I think that might be the evolution of the part-time market,” Cameron says. “Rather than committing to doing a part-time degree which is going to take you six years, people could choose a learn-as-you-go arrangement where you just sign up for a module and then aggregate those modules.”

Is there a risk that this sort of “fast food” approach to studying might devalue universities?

Bell says that bitesize learning did prompt this kind of criticism about integrity initially – but he hopes things have moved on. “I know from my own experience that a lot of internal quality assurance is being done to ensure anything that is going out is of the right standard.”

Will the Office for Students help or hinder innovation?

Vice-chancellors are beginning to understand how the government’s powerful new Office for Students will work.

“The new regulatory framework is designed to open up the system with new providers and different modes of delivery,” Bell says. “But there are elements that might actually disincentivise innovation.” He says that if universities are expected to show that every course is being charged to the student at its actual cost there will be no room to cross-subsidise new ideas or stimulate new choices for students.

“Usually the motivations of governments are genuine – to promote diversity and flexibility and so forth,” Cameron agrees. “And usually their actions have the opposite effect.”

“As soon as you have a new framework that is going to measure and regulate a whole range of dimensions and require us to be different I can imagine us all chanting, ‘We are all different’ in the same words. My sense is that legislating for diversity is the worst way to achieve diversity.”

lec Cameron

Alec Cameron
 Alec Cameron Photograph: Aston University

What was your first degree and where did you study? 
Double degree in science and electrical engineering at the University of Sydney

What is your secret vice? 
None that would be secret after answering this

What is your signature dish? 
To cook: anything barbecued. To eat: dessert (or anything sweet)

Name three things you love about your university city? 
Positive sentiment in the city about Birmingham’s future, a selection of great restaurants, the diversity of the population

What book is on your bedside table? 
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

What do you want for Christmas? 
Fantastically, less political point-scoring at the expense of universities. Inevitably, socks again?

What did you want to be when you were 18? 
A player for the Wallabies (Australian rugby union team)

David Bell

David Bell
 David Bell Photograph: University of Reading

What was your first degree and where did you study? 
History and philosophy at the University of Glasgow

What is your secret vice? 
Watching “minnow” teams at the very depths of English football

What is your signature dish?
Frejas tuna

Name three things you love about your university city?
The distinctive Reading bricks that characterise many buildings around the town and university, the hidden history of Reading Abbey, Reading FC

What book is on your bedside table?
Munich by Robert Harris

What do you want for Christmas? 
A new pair of John White shoes (I love decent shoes!)

What did you want to be when you were 18?
Primary school teacher (after being Scotland’s international goalkeeper)

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Source:-theguardian.

Written by Loknath Das