Who cares what the institutional structures of a university are, provided that the best student educational opportunities are preserved? Well, it may be that bureaucratic and financial structures are not isolable from the intellectual development of students. Will students have a different (worse?) educational experience if their university is privately run, or if they get a degree in two years rather than three, or if the delivery of their degree is out-sourced to further education (FE) colleges? In what follows we discuss these three institutional developments and consider their potential impact on the educational experience of students.
Alternative private providers
Government will widen opportunities for private institutions to take over some of the educational role of universities. Students at private universities will have access to the same Government sponsored loans and grants. In addition Government will give more degree-awarding powers to private education institutions. There is nothing to stop these privately run institutions from having a research agenda. But if research council money is tied to public universities, then private research opportunities will be limited. If so, it is likely that private universities will focus on teaching, and not— in the main—on research. What implications might this have for the student experience?
If the pressure to research is lessened, it may follow that the quality of teaching will rise. The reputation for delivering a satisfactory learning environment will no doubt become a key market driver. So, private universities may be more attentive to teaching standards than universities have been—so much the better for the student experience.
Except, of course, that the learner may not be the best judge of whether their learning environment is satisfactory. Poor communication skills and late, indecipherable marking are clear indications of an unsatisfactory educational experience, but other indicators are vexed. Some subjects are painful to learn, but it would be a pity to exclude them from the syllabus because pain is usually unsatisfactory. Marks and results ought also to be somewhat insulated from the satisfaction of the learner.
Will an educational market driven by student-consumers find itself beholden to satisfaction ratings? Perhaps not, if—as some optimists suggest—students are discriminating enough consumers to recognise that grade inflation and syllabus distortions will bring the very status of being a graduate into disrepute.
Another suggestion made has been to separate degree-awarding powers from teaching. Local institutions such as further education colleges would teach students locally but their degree would be awarded by a university. Potentially students could study at a local institution, be taught by local staff but achieve a degree from a prestigious university. This would enable people the opportunity to access higher education who may not be free to move due to community ties, caring responsibilities or financial constraints. Clearly though, the corporate life of the university would be absent under this arrangement. Does that affect the educational experience? Satellite learning may give the impression that active epistemic practices need not be internalised. The practices being taught may remain remote, not done by the tutors and therefore not to be attempted by the student.
Rather than degree study taking the traditional three or four years, courses could be completed in two by increasing the length of terms. This is partly possible because those teaching them will not be required to conduct and publish research. Efficiency savings ensue: university campuses would no be longer unused for half the year. It also means savings for the students who will only need to find the money to pay for two years’ worth of accommodation, living expenses and fees. They will also be able to enter the job market sooner and more conditioned to the intensity of a workplace routine.
Paradoxically, though graduates will be used to professional routines they will have had less opportunity to experience work. The majority of students devote at least part of their holidays to gaining work experience, knowledge of the ‘real world’ they are continually told is vital if they want to get a job after graduation. Will this opportunity exist within a packed two year programme? Does it offer different and valuable ‘tasters’ of work compared to a full career job?
Beside this is another more philosophical concern about compressed learning. Being so intensely immersed in the routine of the degree subject will entail the crowding out of wider issues. It may be for example that the academic pace discourages students from taking up optional courses out of intellectual curiosity. Active membership of a society or campaigning organisation might require more time than these students can afford to give.
Institutional values and the individual
Three of the institutional values that have traditionally structured universities and are potentially threatened by these developments are: disinterestedness—that criticism of ideas, actions and judgements should be conducted selflessly; communalism—the idea that knowledge is a product of social collaboration and belongs to the community; and organised scepticism—meaning that all ideas, without exception, are subject to systematic analysis and testing. Do these values affect the student educational experience and do the proposed developments in higher education affect these institutional values?
As higher education becomes increasingly consumer driven, disinterested intellectual curiosity is made increasingly vulnerable to extrinsic biases such as student satisfaction or ‘employability’. So what? These outcomes are clearly vital but they must not diminish the opportunity for intellectual curiosity. If the marketplace is allowed to define the value of education predominantly by employability or even by student satisfaction, intellectual curiosity could be crowded out. This vulnerability is likely to be more pronounced among private providers who are more susceptible to the vicissitudes of consumer demand.
If satellite education providers lack the ‘corporate life’ of traditional universities then they lack the means by which to show that knowledge is a product of social collaboration with community ownership. The intellectual autonomy of the learner necessarily suffers if they are only engaged passively and without this sense of ownership. The result is a student without a sense of knowledge as being dynamic and collaborative. Instead knowledge becomes reified and if that happens, the student will be correspondingly disempowered.
Compressing three years of education into two might mean that the fundamental assumptions and implications of student’s studies would be unquestioned in the race to the final exam. The danger then becomes that instead of fostering unshackled thinking, universities will turn out overspecialised, gullible graduates unable to respond innovatively to the unforeseen challenges of work and life.
These are, of course, potential threats only. The underlying point is that institutional values—what universities stand for—do affect the student’s educational experience. So institutional changes must be made in full cognisance of the implications they will have for the individual student experience.
Annie Gosling is the King George VI Fellow at Cumberland Lodge and a PhD student at Liverpool John Moores University. She is writing her thesis on young people’s career aspirations and expectations.
Dr Owen Gower is a Senior Fellow at Cumberland Lodge and a Visiting Tutor in Philosophy at Royal Holloway and King’s College London.
Cumberland Lodge is an educational charity in Windsor Great Park. Since 1947 it has been a forum in which university students from a range of disciplines have come to stay for short periods of time. The Lodge provides a space where students can examine the fundamental assumptions and implications of their degree subject as well as how it relates to wider ethical issues.