Thursday, 28 April 2011

Tuition fees, a revolution in higher education, and another four day weekend!

A few days off work for me at the moment, which has coincided with a break in the H807 course. I suppose I should be forcing myself to stay away from all things digital and have a proper break, but I think I've reached a stage where I start to get a bit twitchy if I haven't been online for a few hours! That might sound a bit sad, but believe it or not I still find the whole internet and social network world quite exciting and, given the ease of access via laptop, iPad or smartphone, I guess I'm genuinely hooked.

A couple of things have got me thinking this week which at first didn't seem particularly related to each other, but the more I thought about them I realised they were actually very closely related indeed.

Firstly, my daughter's sixth form college held an evening for parents to explain the ins and outs of applying for higher education. I managed to wheedle my way out of attending, but my wife went and, aside from all the usual information about choosing the right subject, and the right university, and filling out the UCAS application, she was quite shocked about the potential impact of the new tuition fee arrangements. Our daughter is currently in the first year of sixth form college, so if she wants to go to university then she would be entering in 2012. She will therefore be part of the first intake affected by the new fees. Given that I work in higher education I am reasonably well informed about the new fee arrangements, but I have to confess that it really starts to hit home when I consider the issue in the context of my own family. I've been following the issue quite closely on Twitter (@timeshighered) and it is clear that the majority of universities expect to charge the maximum £9000 per annum for their courses. If a student also borrows £4000 per annum for living costs, then by the time they graduate they will have accumulated a debt of £39,000. What shocked my wife was a point made by my daughter's college that it is quite possible that the total cost of repaying that loan could be over £80,000. In other words, graduates may end up paying back more than double what they borrowed. In effect, graduates will have the equivalent of a small mortgage at the age of 21, assuming they enter a graduate level job.

Now of course we don't yet know what the final arrangements will be, as the government doesn't even expect to publish its white paper on the matter until June, so inevitably there is a lot of speculation and misinformation out there. Nevertheless, it does seem clear that this is will have an impact on applications to universities. My daughter is not even sure that she wants to go to university, irrespective of the fees, but in the past young people in her position would probably have gone anyway. Surely they will now think twice if it means saddling themselves with a massive debt for the next 30 years. Some people will say that this is a good thing if it means that that people entering university are genuinely committed to it. However, this has to be considered against the fact that the whole thrust of government policy on higher education over the past twenty years has been to increase participation rates. Universities have therefore adapted to cope with larger numbers of students. It is highly likely, in my view, that there will now be a significant decline in applications to universities. I've made the point before that I think many people in higher education are simply ignoring the potential threats brought about by the new fees. They seem to believe that "we'll be alright as long as we keep doing what we're doing".

This brings me to the second interesting point that has arisen this week: an article in the Times Higher which I picked up on via Twitter. The article, by Cathy Davidson of Duke University in North Carolina, maintains that our higher education system was developed over 100 years ago to meet the needs of the industrial age. In the early twentieth century the response of universities to the industrial world's emphasis on efficiency, standardisation, specialisation and hierarchical management structures was to reorganise into faculties and schools, and to have specialist degrees and disciplines:

"The history of 20th-century higher education has been the history of assessing individual achievement, measuring, certifying and quantifying outcomes and outputs."

Davidson suggests that the structure of higher education is no longer suited to the modern world of high speed communication and knowledge transfer, and she claims that the time is now right for a new revolution in higher education. In particular, she suggests that graduates nowadays need to be equipped with new skills:

"....new sorting and attentional skills, collaborative skills, judgement and logical skills, synthesising and analytical abilities, critical and creative skills, qualitative and quantitative skills, all together, with few lines between them. These are sometimes called "21st-century literacies", a range of new interpersonal, synthesising, organising and communication skills that companies insist today's graduates lack."

I think there has been a lot of emphasis in recent years on the role of universities in producing graduates who are ready for the workplace. In my own work I lead a programme of degree courses which are highly vocational and are designed to prepare graduates for entry to specific professional disciplines. We attract students partly because they know that when they graduate they have a direct route into a career. I had assumed that this would continue to be the case for the foreseeable future, notwithstanding the current recession in the construction industry. However, it seems to me that the universities which will be successful in the future will be those which produce graduates with the attributes to enable them to adapt to a fast-changing environment. In the era of high tuition fees universities will have little choice but to respond. Prospective applicants will quickly become proficient in identifying the universities which are capable of providing the types of courses suited to the modern world. At the moment I don't even know what those courses might look like, but I do realise that if we simply carry on doing things as we have done for the past twenty years we will very soon find ourselves obsolete.

Anyway, it's probably best not to let that spoil another four day weekend. Personally, as an avid republican, I can't stand the whole royal wedding thing, but I'm very glad of the day off because the wedding happens to coincide with my best friend's 50th birthday. I'll be doing plenty of celebrating on Friday, and if QPR can beat Watford on Saturday then the celebrations will continue!!

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