The Failure of Universities

Giles Marshall 11.30am


So finally a university lecturer has had a go at students for not attending lectures.  The highly regarded medieval historian Guy Halsall, who adorns the York history department, apparently let loose something of a rant that involved his expression of displeasure that too few students bothered turning up for his lectures.  He posted his views online, on the university’s virtual learning system, telling students that they had missed the chance of hearing from one of the premier medieval historians in the world, to whom conferences pay large sums of money when he goes and guest lectures.  Professor Halsall intimated that the vast sums of money being spent on a university education were being wasted.

He has a point, of course.  The fees of £9,000 a year should be starting to focus students’ attention on the real value of university education.  And while his comments may seem a little too self-regarding (although one could equally ask, why shouldn’t they?) they raise the thorny issue of just what university education is actually for.

In the great debate about school exams, we often hear media pundits and politicians suggest that it would be a rather good idea to get the input of university departments when constructing the secondary school curriculum and examinations system.  Yet it seems that university departments have enough to do sorting out their own provision rather than being used as experts for an age group they don’t teach or deal with.  The imposition of high tuition fees has focused attention on what universities are actually providing for their undergraduate students. The feedback from numerous recent undergraduates is less than inspiring.  I hear plenty of tales of poor lecturers, seminars being given by graduate students and irregular and superficial essay supervision.  On the arts side, the contact time between student and lecturer is minimal, often amounting to a total of just six hours a week (split between several lecturers) for students.  This usually includes three or four hours of lectures to large audiences, so the small group sessions may be a mere one or two hours a week.  The only exceptions are Oxford and Cambridge, who at least provide weekly tutorial or supervision sessions of one to one (or one to two) for their undergraduate students.  Compare all of this with the much maligned secondary school system, where even an undemanding A-level system requires two or three hours of lesson delivery a day, and frequently more depending on timetable vagaries. 

There were apparently some 11,000 unfilled university places in the last application cycle.  For those places that were filled, it would be surprising if there weren’t more attention being paid to just how the universities fulfil their teaching mission.

Professor Halsall’s frustration is also an interesting reflection on the student regard for university education.  For all of the violent protests against the imposition of fees, it seems that students still cannot be bothered to turn up to a lecture by an international authority in his field.  If students really were bothered about their value for money, the least they would be doing would be attending the specific lectures and seminars laid on for them.  Perhaps, after all, the fact that such fees won’t be paid until well into their working life has engendered a sense of ennui towards their academic studies?  Perhaps too the universities should stop putting lectures online and demand physical attendance instead, much as the school system does?  Are they worried that such demands might reduce even further the number of students who survive to graduate at the end of a third year?

We clearly haven’t got the university system right.  The teaching in too many is abysmal and the reaction from students seems to be to limit their exposure to it as much as possible, whilst happily committing themselves to their eventual £27,000 pay back.  Outside Oxford and Cambridge, it is rare to hear of students extolling the virtues of their academic studies.  More is learnt in the clubs and the bars than in the lecture halls.  We may wonder indeed just what the virtue of a university education is. 

Perhaps instead of constantly sniping at secondary schools, who are at least delivering education to the nation’s under-18s on a daily basis, it would also be worth reviewing the set-up of the education that the state expects to be provided after 18.  It would save an awful lot of money if we finally regarded it as being unnecessary.

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We must do more to help the young

Alexander Pannett 7.30am

In Roman times, Janus, the two-faced god, emphasised change and the development of youth into adulthood.

It must therefore be galling to British school children that modern education in the UK has changed little with its own two-faced approach.

On the one hand, they must forever be taking more exams, more coursework and more responsibilities in order to compete in a globalised world for the jobs and life that their parents assumed was a birthright.

On the other, pupils’ achievements are mocked as poor return in an age of grade inflation, ever-falling exam standards and supposedly parlous work-ethic.

Those that survive the pressure cauldron of school and manage to secure a coveted place at University find, with bitter irony, that their education is transformed into a shadow of its former intensity, in many cases consisting of a mere two to four hours “contact time” a week, in classes of twenty or thirty.  A friend of mine did not even have a single assessment to complete in her first three months of University.

“Student-led” seminars are prevalent, where often a distracted tutor sits in the corner, nursing a particular esoteric brand of instant coffee and wondering whether the etymology of ennui can be traced back to Shakespeare’s cat. Or some such nonsense.

And now you have to pay for such “higher education”.

Even on managing to graduate without bankruptcy or gout, students are required to perform intricate initiation “tests” by graduate recruitment personnel, who, despite twenty odd years of supposedly world class education, will judge students’ suitability for employment on their ability to build towers out of rolled up newspapers.

Or they may get lucky and be sent off to fight in one of the wars that have been fostered on them by middle aged arm chair generals and suffer rejection by an apathetic society for their efforts.

Throw in astonishingly high house prices for first time buyers, un-paid internships and unprecedented youth unemployment (22%) and you start to suspect that today’s youth are getting a particularly raw deal.

It is in this context that, whilst Michael Goves’s plans to request A-Level exam boards work with leading universities to raise standards should be applauded, we should be expecting a lot more action from the Government in addressing the social inequality timebomb that will arise from current youth degradation.

The Government should be much more radical about raising standards in schools by abandoning the discredited A-Level system and switching to the world-leading International Baccalaureate.  University degrees should have a mandatory minimum number of hours of contact time and ambitious students should be allowed to fit more modules into a term and so finish a degree at a quicker pace, to cut down on the regressive debt they will have to accrue.

The Government must also provide better vocational courses for students who do not choose an academic route, with enough resources and training to make these a viable alternative path into the workplace.

To achieve effective reform there must be much more dialogue between businesses, universities and schools about what skills the job market needs.  Businesses should therefore also be consulted on the content of exams for both secondary and higher education.

There should also be much more encouragement for companies to take on work experience students and pay them.  Tax incentives could be made available for companies that employ 16-24 year olds.  The lowest income tax band should be raised for 16-24 year olds to help them meet the costs of finding initial employment.

Benefits must be re-structured to recognise and relieve the youth unemployment epidemic. Jobseekers allowance should be highest for the most vulnerable, which are 16-24 year olds due to their lack of skills and experience. Currently this age bracket gets less than any other.

The Government could also issue a moratorium for every government department on making 16-24 year olds redundant due to spending cuts.  Building on Chris White’s recent Social Value Bill, the Government could ensure that the granting of government contracts is weighted in favour of companies that promote youth apprenticeships.  The Big Society Capital could also be encouraged to invest in social enterprises that directly help youth employment.

As our society grows older, we will be looking to the generosity of younger generations to sustain the prohibitively expensive welfare state that we all will rely on for our remaining years.

Unless we show compassion to the suffering youth of today, we should not be surprised if that compassion is not returned when we find ourselves dependent on them in the future.