Let’s go fly a kite: Who is HE for?

Wasted on the young

Mary Curnock Cook, Higher Education Consultant

According to surveys conducted by HEPI and The Student Room, between 15 and 20 per cent of undergraduate students regret their course choices. This means that up to 100,000 students a year are stuck in courses they are not enjoying, supported by government-backed loans at significant cost to the taxpayer and the economy, and not to mention the students’ wellbeing and sense of fulfilment.

We should incentivise later engagement with HE. Ways to do this could include limited access to student loans before age 19 (this would also create a PQA system by default), employers offering pre-university work placements, better funding and repayment terms for part-time HE, and higher maintenance grants (or loans if you must) for older students.

We could also shift to credit-based funding to give confidence to older students who may need to pause their studies or move institution, lower tuition fees for older students, create tax and other incentives for employers who support employees undertaking higher education courses (as well as offering tax incentives for working students), and give incentives for universities to offer courses in block weeks, evenings and weekends.

We’ll also need generous childcare provision, admissions policies which give credit for experiential learning (APL) as well as qualifications and league tables which recognise the recruitment of mature students.

I once made the front page of The Telegraph after a public speech in which I quipped – channelling George Bernard Shaw – that HE is sometimes wasted on the young. But I was making a serious point about school leavers who sleepwalk into university giving little thought to what they really want to spend three years studying and end up regretting their choices. In addition to the benefits to individuals, older students are much more likely to make considered choices relating to the skills they need for their career and in the light of greater maturity in their pursuit of higher education.

Lower the university starter age

Professor Gilly Salmon, Academic Director, Online Education Services (UK) Ltd

Rather than raise the school leaving age, could we lower the university starter age for all?

What if one day a week from say, age ten, is a ‘university day?’. Universities would commit to teaching foundation, and threshold concepts that they know will be important later. Students could have the freedom to discover, experiment and explore, learn about problem-solving using scientific principles, about rigorous approaches to research and ethics, engage with cross-disciplinary opportunities and be accountable for projects.

There’d be nothing to stop parents and grandparents joining in with the learning and being inspired by a new approach to cross-generational collaboration. Not all of it would be face to face – students could use the day to learn from MOOCs, OERs, and global online communities, under the guidance of their ‘personal (university) trainer’.

Students would be treated as more sophisticated learners on that day and start to develop some self-determination and self-efficacy, take some responsibility for their learning, thus reducing transition culture shocks later on. Many might undertake assessments and gradually accumulate credits, and some will then start university at age 18 with most of their foundation year already completed and with a strong sense of choice and purpose.

University staff would be challenged but would have opportunities to share their passions and their potential impact much more widely, and see them through the eyes of their students of the future.

One simple target for WP

Neil Mackenzie, Head of Advice & Representation, Sheffield Students’ Union

Social mobility is not moving at a pace that anyone can be pleased with. Our elite professions remain disproportionately skewed to the privately educated. While universities care about this and about widening access to their institutions, there are no real incentives to exceed the benchmark in recruiting state school students.

Approximately 6.5% of UK school children are privately educated. Therefore no university should aim to recruit more than 6.5% of its students from private schools. Unless we accept that wealth has imbued a genetic superiority on to those attending private schools, this is in no way a quality issue. It is one of fairness and removal of barriers. The figure for private schooling for over 16s rises to around 18%. We should even accept this as an interim target.

The impact would be to radically shift the recruitment practices of elite universities, ensure that the makeup of student populations more closely mirrors the society in which we live, and hopefully shift equality of access to our top professions. We could follow it up with a requirement that at least 12.4% of undergraduate intakes received free school meals for at least three years of their secondary education.

One response to “Let’s go fly a kite: Who is HE for?

  1. “between 15 and 20 per cent of undergraduate students regret their course choices”.

    Is that really much of a problem? It’s no fun for those with regrets of course, but I think this would stand scrutiny with other major life decisions (houses, spouses etc!).

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