Let’s get down to fundamentals

The White Paper, as well as rearranging agency deckchairs in the M4 corridor, hits at some of the core underlying principles of how UK degrees are developed and delivered. Behind these headlines, Wonkhe has been thinking about some of the key nudges which could have a significant impact on the way institutions think about some of the basic building blocks of the university.

All about the outcome

I’m planning a new course. It’s my research area, and the market research tells me that students will be queuing round the block to get in. But there’s no directly-linked graduate prospects. D’oh, this one won’t make it past the approvals panel which now has to take a serious look at the likely outcomes in terms of graduate jobs. Those are far off into the future though, and might well be driven more by the size, shape and health of the economy than by the graduates we produce. And also by the skills development and other opportunities available in the university, but outside of my programme.

The focus on graduate outcomes is intended to switch the development of the university portfolio to one led (or, if not led, strongly influenced) by the graduate labour market. At its worst, this could mean further edging-out of niche subjects and the scaling-back of arts provision in particular. At its best, though, this could galvanise institutions to take a much greater post-graduation interest in their alumni with more (and better) provision of careers and employability for students and graduates.

Glass houses

It’s better to count the things that matter. So when trying to tackle social inequality through the university system it’s important to look beyond aggregate measures of how many students from poorer backgrounds made it into the university. We know that there are issues with working-class white boys entering university, and in the success obtained by black students once they’re at university. That’s why there’s a need to measure and report on those things system-wide.

By initiating the “transparency revolution”, with data on access and success published by ethnicity, gender and background, the government may be about to crack a suite of problems. How you count these things matters, and in this case what matters is due to be counted. With the numbers out there for all to see and included in TEF, we might just get somewhere on tackling – across the whole higher education system – some serious injustices.

And here’s one you didn’t hear about in the Green Paper…

Give me credit

The “positively-defined learning outcome” is a particular interest of the current Framework for Higher Education Qualifications. And while many, probably most, students are blissfully unaware that this is the case it is a pretty fundamental way of looking at the nature of what is it to have an award from a UK institution. With the call for evidence on student mobility within courses of study – “I’ve had a good first year, and I’m looking to trade up”, or “sod this sleepy backwater, I’m off to the big city” – this could signal a more concerted move to the accumulation of credits as the building blocks for degrees.

Many institutions already follow this credit-accumulation model, as you can see from the recommendations QAA review teams make in this area, so they would probably view this as a positive move clarifying existing practice. But some consideration must be given to what it is to have a degree, and what coherence there can be for the overall award if it comes from two, three or more different institutions. For some students this could be just what they need for a fresh start or a considered change of tack. But taken further it could lead to an expensive way to get an incoherent transcript which might not be worth the paper it’s printed on. See also our blog on options for credit transfer.

It may be harder for government to influence behaviour within universities that it is to shuffle civil servants, but we shouldn’t focus all our attention on these big moves without some serious thought about the very foundations on which our higher education is built.

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