Universities and higher education

Tomorrow MPs are due to debate the Higher Education Bill.  It therefore seems to be a good time to make a few points about post-school education.

Let me start by saying that I went to university, enjoyed three years there and came away with an academic qualification that set me on the road to becoming a chartered engineer. But then, as now, it was not the only way to achieve such a qualification, and other routes are not inferior, indeed they can be better. But there was a presumption by my school, and from home, that university would be my route into a career.  And alternative advice was weak.

I encouraged my children, and I encourage other young people, to consider whether alternatives to university might be a better route into their chosen career.  Or indeed, whether postponing university for a few years until they have more idea what they want to do, might also be a good option.

So I come to the issue of higher education from the view that more is not necessarily better. The university sector has grown enormously over the last 50 years, both with existing universities expanding, and with waves of new ones being created.  Do we need more?

I’m not that close to the subject, but if there is a clamour for more, it certainly isn’t very loud.  It’s apprenticeships that I’m hearing calls to be expanded – and higher apprenticeships can lead to a similar level of qualification as a first degree.  So shouldn’t this be at the centre of any Higher Education Bill?

Post the Brexit vote, higher education is in new territory.  Our existing universities will need to reassess their student numbers and research base without EU membership.  Is this the right time to unsettle their environment in other ways with new organisations and private sector competition?

And for students, higher fees are already changing behaviours.  I’m particularly concerned that trends in the ‘marketisation’ of higher education mean teaching styles are moving away from students taking individual responsibility for their learning to staff being expected to direct learning in a much more school-like way.  Is encouraging this trend by linking fees to teaching ‘quality’ better for individuals? How is that ‘quality’ to be judged by progress in post-university careers?

So I don’t know what problem this Bill seeks to address.  I can’t see it having value to existing universities.   And I’m left with an uncomfortable feeling that the driving force for the changes it proposes is a dogma to expand private provision in the university sector. And I hope it’s not the result of lobbying by a few individuals with deep pockets.

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