It was always evident that whoever formed the new government, higher education would face a period of retrenchment after the rapid growth of the past decade. We're still waiting for Lord Browne's review to report, but can expect it to recommend raising the current ceiling on student fees.
Many complain about education becoming a market. Educators are faced with growing demands from students, who complain loudly if they don't receive what they feel they've paid for (this is never about good teaching, note, but about good grades).
For a marketing perspective on the problems in higher education, read Seth Godin's analysis of university courses in the US. 'Most undergraduate college and university programs are organized to give an average education to average students.'
Let's hope average courses are squeezed in a more competitive market with rising fees. But how could the education we provide become less average, while remaining affordable to many?
Here's one approach. We should welcome two-year undergraduate degrees, but under the following conditions:
- Students should be older when they start university (either having taken a gap year, or worked, or studied for a foundation degree). We teach too many school leavers who aren't yet ready to learn.
- A two-year degree should not simply teach more to compress the syllabus (that only encourages students to learn less).
- Students would be expected to meet minimum attendance requirements – at risk of losing the opportunity to be assessed.
- Work placements should not be abandoned: space would ideally have to be made for two three-month placements as part of the course.
- An academic year would have to become fuller: I suggest nine months, plus three months on placement. (Paid work outside the course would have to become a secondary commitment.)
Academics and university administrators will resist this fiercely: the status quo is very comfortable for very many. But Godin's right: an average education for average students is untenable in a world of rising fees and greater competition.