Monday, August 16, 2010

Two shocks to the (British university) system

Two recent news articles caught my attention: this one in yesterday's Observer, and this one in today's Guardian. In different ways, they raise profound questions about how British universities will evolve over the next ten years.

The first of the above articles draws attention to a “recruitment drive” by EU universites, aimed at would-be university students in this country. It may come as news to many such students (or their parents) that they have the option to study for degrees in various other EU countries, where the fees are lower than in the UK, and get tuition in English. The article focuses on Maastricht University, by way of example. It's an attractive option: nice town, English language tuition in some subjects, strong research. The recruitment drive is claimed to be driven by our own supply-and-demand problem: too many UK students chasing too few places. The interesting question is whether foreign universities can attract students who actually could get places over here. That potentially reverses higher education's role as a net exporter for the UK. Can this be used as an argument for better state support for universities?

The second article (similar one here), entitled London is most cost-effective UK city for students, publishes a league table, the “2010 NatWest Student Living Index” which evaluates the cost of living for students for 25 cities in the UK, and favours London, surprisingly — the catch is, that cost-effectiveness is a function of a student's earning potential in the city, rather than just cost of living. Seemingly, students are now “meant” to be working part-time while studying (at least, in order for the ranking to be meaningful). Of course, many students get support from their parents and so some of them have the option to study full-time, but (as mentioned in both articles) 46% do not. Universities themselves, meanwhile, remain pretty much oblivious to these inequities — if a student fails an exam, you can cut him some slack on the grounds that his grandmother died recently, but you can't make allowances for him having been pulling pints in the local bar every evening. I think the best fix that is likely to be achievable, would be for universities to be more flexible about the duration of study. The current rigid three-year schedule is dictated by the (declining) Government funding scheme for students, as devised when full-time study was the standard. We could move towards a more German approach of getting your degree in however long it takes you (and we should accept a higher drop-out rate).

added 17.8.10: A new Guardian article:
A landmark review into university finance is expected to recommend that student loans, now only available to those on full-time courses, are extended to part-time students to cover the fees they must currently pay upfront, the Guardian has learned. Such a move would pave the way for a major change in the way university education is viewed, with a three-year stint in a new city no longer a given.
Part-time study is a way forward, but I wonder whether you need a binary divide between full-time and part-time study, or whether we should be able to allow for study schedules that fall between the two.

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