After digesting the alternative white paper recently – a response from academics to the government’s higher education reforms – I put some of my ideas about university education back into a cool, dark place to mature a little longer. I spent ten years in the university system, but I’m not an academic now, nor ever will be, and I felt I had disregarded some well-founded beliefs held by academics staff about the key elements of a university education.
However, the model I had reevaluated as rash in the light of the white paper is pretty much the one that is now being offered by Coventry University College, as splashed about in the news this week. In brief:
· Classes available from 7am until 10pm Monday to Friday, and until 4pm at weekends
· Pay as you go modules for those who cannot access standard student finance
· Study times and intensity fitted around other pressures such as employment, children, or indeed the lack of these
· A degree can be achieved in two years if you choose intense study; likewise any shape of part-time study can be accommodated
Having batted this kind of structure around with various interested parties of late, we had concluded that flexible study, with the ‘intense’ option, would be best suited to the cash-strapped of today, and in fact the most difficult part of the equation to complete would be the employment part – especially for those leaving college with little or no work experience.
The traditional degree structure, which now boils down to two semesters of 10 teaching weeks each spread lazily across each academic year, with six months of holidays in inconvenient chunks in between, is a nightmare for anyone trying to divide their time between work and study. Gone are the days when one could arrive at the temping agency a week after summer exams and be manning the reception desk of a construction company with 24 hours.
Another difficult element in the ‘intense’ degree model is how to cram all that teaching time into the lives of academics who are beholden to produce at least six published peer-reviewed pieces of research each academic year in the name of preserving the status of their department (or something like that). Students already feel fobbed off when their seminar leaders turn out to be postgraduates rather than bona fide lecturers.
A key stipulation of the alternative white paper was that students need to be taught by academics who are currently engaged in research in their field. However the USA has ditched this concern and has teaching colleges, where academics can commit to a year of well-paid teaching that is not interspersed with frantic research and writing sessions to meet departmental requirements. No serious academic aiming to make an impact in their specialism would remain in one of these jobs for long, but how much harm would one semester do, particularly if the focus on teaching allowed for more of it to be done without the usual strain?
Yes, it is wonderful for undergraduates to be taught by people who are actively researching and academically engaged, but the first piece of advice given to me as I embarked on teaching alongside my PhD work was to give the absolute minimum effort to seminar preparation and marking of papers. I was horrified, but this view was endemic. I would rather have given my all to teaching for half the year, and then wallowed without distraction in research the other half.
I have no idea how Coventry university college are planning to make their system work, but if it does, I hope that other institutions, offering a wider range of courses, will take note.