A new approach to education

12 May

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.

4 Responses to “A new approach to education”

  1. Honza 12/05/2010 at 11:34 am #

    Richard, that is an interesting take on the issue of education and I like the action plan. Would you mind if I shared my take on the problem as well?
    Seth Godin’s analysis struck me as a bit simplistic but it was controversial enough to provoke me to think about the problem.
    I would contend that education for the masses doesn’t have to be great, it has to be good enough. There will always be premium universities that will stand above the rest.
    At this time, though, we find ourselves on the brink of a collapse, so pushing the educational system to “good enough” will provide us with major headaches.
    The problem lies within the motivation of the students. You will always find 5% of highly motivated students willing to go to great lenghts to get ahead of the pack. The schools are now trying to motivate students to learn. That is a wrong approach. They should be focusing on sustaining the thirst for knowledge and skills at the top 5% segment instead. Because the top students are the ones who “sell” the school and education in general. This is the very beginning of the reform. Then comes your action plan.

  2. Richard Bailey 12/05/2010 at 8:49 pm #

    Thank you Jan (Honza).
    Having accepted students, we have a responsibility to them all – though I do agree with you that the few (it probably is close to your 5%) get most out of it.
    I’m also motivated by hearing how frustrated those top students are that others can do the minimum and by relying on marks from group work can gain a degree with very little commitment or initiative.
    Back to Seth Godin: average students with average degrees from average institutions – unless they have something special to offer – will not even have average careers.

  3. Caroline Wilson 25/05/2010 at 9:50 am #

    I like your radical thinking Richard, but your condition would have to be met re students delaying until they are ready to take on what would be a fairly meaty challenge.
    That would need quite a lot of re-thinking by business, schools and society generally about how to make a gap year or more an attractive and useful option.
    I suspect many of the students you find currently lack drive and focus ended up at university because there were limited other options.

  4. David Phillips 27/05/2010 at 12:15 pm #

    How sad, so few options for such small and so young minds? A couple of generations ago I bade farewell to fellow students who left my school aged 16. Yes, they were young. I was lucky, I continued my education.
    Growing up for my fellow students was tough but age was not the issue. Some were very bright and a number of them achieved great things (one has just retired from a stellar academic career at CERN).
    Never before, not even during the industrial revolution, has mankind lived through so much change so fast.
    Most people recognise that their life is changing at a linear rate with the government a distant irrelevance. But the internet is growing at an exponential rate.
    The revolution in relationships and expansion of knowledge, the bloodbath that comes with ‘always on everything’ means we cannot teach average anything.
    Average, in a world that can see greatness, represents grinding poverty that Dickens would recognise for the majority – degree or no degree.

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