At the recent HMC (Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference rather than the Honda Motor Company for those who have googled HMC!) conference I found myself feeling sympathy for university admissions tutors, not an emotion I have previously experienced in this context.
The small reduction in the percentages of top A level grades last August combined with the tuition fee induced fall in the number of university applicants has meant that even the most prestigious of institutions have struggled to fill their courses. Pleasingly, for the students concerned, a record number of undergraduates have been admitted despite missing the grades required in the original offer. Sadly, for the universities concerned, many institutions still face a financial shortfall. The pressures on universities seem likely to grow as they compete with each other for the best teachers and academics, the best students and the best research grants. They must also become ever more accountable to their students and justify their fees in terms of the quality and duration of teaching. I suspect that the era of humanities courses which feature 2 lectures and a seminar each week, lasting a total of 3 or 4 hours, with audiences of hundreds, for a woefully short teaching year, is already ending as students compare the level of support unfavourably with that offered for similar cost by an independent school Sixth Form. (Birkdale offers 5 hours of contact time per A level subject, in an average class size of less than seven, plus academic and pastoral support as well as a wide range of extra-curricular activities.) Feedback on students’ work will continue to improve and perhaps even end of term reports will appear. At the national level it seems likely that universities, unable to offer a full range of courses, will begin to specialise in different areas of study and then form federations to reduce costs through centralisation of bureaucracy.
The avowed purpose of universities has shifted somewhat over time from the original guilds or associations centered on medieval cathedrals. Wilhelm von Humboldt, a 19th century Prussian philosopher and diplomat and brother of the noted geographer Alexander, created a new education system following the seismic intellectual, social and political shift caused by the French Revolution. He founded the University of Berlin around the new and influential notion of deliberately fusing research and teaching in a single institution; for Humboldt a university was to do with the “whole” community of scholars and students engaged in a common search for truth. For Lord Robbins, whose 1963 report presaged the huge expansion of university education in the UK, universities had four objectives: instruction in skills, promotion of the general powers of the mind, advancement of learning, and transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship. David Willetts, the current universities minister, stated earlier this year “They push forward the frontiers of knowledge. They transform people’s lives. And they contribute to the health and wealth of our nation through their deep involvement in wider society and the economy.” The National Union of Students is rather more prosaic “We have really hard evidence to show that students are fairly clear about why they want to go to university – and for the vast majority, it is about getting a better job and having a successful career,”. The steady drift away from Humboldt’s lofty ideal is unsurprising given the prevailing postmodernist view of truth, the link between economic growth and numbers of highly educated workers and the need to equip students with the skills for success beyond the confines of academia. I am surely not alone, however, in hoping that some element of higher education remains non-vocational and focused on learning for its own sake.
As the next university application round is now in full swing the pressures on students to choose the right courses are greater than ever. A wealth of information is now available (see for example http://unistats.direct.gov.uk/ ) but there is no substitute for high quality advice and support for individual students by schools; at Birkdale we put a huge amount of time and expertise into guiding our Upper Sixth students at this point in the academic year. In the future, undergraduate study abroad will become more common with an increasing number of European universities offering an attractive combination of low tuition fees, courses taught in English and the opportunity to gain an international outlook and perhaps fluency in a second language. Interest in study in the USA also grows in direct proportion to the size of the bursary funds some American institutions now offer. A small group of students will choose to live at home and attend their local university or, in some subjects, study on-line; this option may detract from the community aspects of university study as well as disappointing parents who had anticipated freedom from their off-spring.
There seems no doubt that for the majority of successful A level students a degree from a well-respected university confers considerable benefits: intellectual development, relevant work placements and the prospect of a substantial premium in life-time earnings as well as social opportunities and a step towards independent adult life. The method by which this may be achieved in the future and the constitution of a degree are less clear.