With the explosion of student numbers over the past couple of decades and the ever-increasing levels of debt that graduates find themselves saddled with, the question “what is the benefit of higher education?”, quite rightly, is frequently asked.
The sector’s reaction to being asked to prove its worth normally results in one of two contrasting arguments: “students should go to university for their love of learning” or “a university education is a ticket to a well-paid job”. While there’s truth to both, in isolation they utterly fail to capture how university informs thinking and shapes values.
One of the most transformative aspects of the university experience is the interaction with a much wider variety of people than students may previously have encountered, no matter what their background is.
This mixing of cultures, viewpoints and language leads to a greater appreciation of difference and could be one of the reasons behind the link that has been found between attending university and holding more positive views towards migration and multiculturalism.
What’s more, the role of collaborative team-working, including across interdisciplinary teams, is critical to successful transition into the workplace where skills like influencing, persuading, self-management, managing one’s own and others’ feelings are consistently reported as being in insufficient supply.
Providing an education rich in interaction, diversity, discussion, debate, and challenge is both necessary and economically and civically productive.
However, for this mixing of ideas to take place, students need to spend time with others in their cohort, and with staff, in both academic and social settings.
Increasing class sizes
One of the great successes of the increase in student numbers is its positive impact on widening participation and social mobility.
However, with this expansion comes drawbacks such as increasing the student-to-staff ratio and reducing face-to-face contact. First year students can easily get lost in the crowd in lectures of hundreds of students, and asking questions in such large venues is too intimidating for many.
While higher education stresses the importance of independent study, it cannot be overstated how important it is for students’ development that they have the opportunity to discuss and analyse what they have learned with both academic staff and their peers. Expanding class sizes dilute this critical element of the university experience.
Additionally, there are now increasing numbers of university students who choose to study while still living at home, for a host of reasons. But this limits the opportunities for mixing with one’s cohort outside of a structured lecture or seminar format.
In an effort to support students’ learning, there has been a growth in the adoption of digital learning tools such as virtual learning environments and lecture capture. There’s no doubt that, when employed and utilised properly, these tools offer a huge advantage to students during their studies. But too often they are being used to replace rather than supplement face-to-face teaching.
This increase of learning in isolation further limits the opportunity for discussion and debate. The corrosive effect of this conception of learning was explored recently in Times Higher Education by Liverpool John Moores University professor of English and cultural history Joe Moran. Students must not be reduced to passive consumers of learning if we need them to be enterprising in the workplace and society.
To address these challenges, universities need to take stronger action to encourage cohorts to learn together. This is an area that is far too easy to overlook as an integral element of the university experience.
Recent years have seen some fantastic new initiatives, taking place at a number of institutions, focusing on “cohort building” where students build solid working relationships with each other.
One of the best is the University of Huddersfield’s Flying Start programme, an intensive, two-week programme introducing students to university life, key study skills and the expectations of their academic discipline.
It was prompted by evidence that students who failed to engage fully with their peers and with staff in the early weeks of the first year were more likely to drop out.
Other initiatives include group project-based units, some of which focus on cross-disciplinary working, including the University of Manchester’s Ethical Grand Challenges, the University of Exeter’s Grand Challenges and the Innovation Programmes developed by the University of Bristol.
These interactive experiences can be effective in integrating students into a cohesive cohort at the beginning of their university journey. Realistic challenges, face-to-face contact and dialogue are likely to be more effective than a dry induction process and will help build the trust that students will need as their intellectual challenges become more testing.
Clearly, there are great benefits to both students and society from increased participation in higher education, however, to maximise this positive impact, universities need to think differently. New approaches for tackling isolation and ensuring that individual students feel part of a varied but cohesive cohort will help ensure that university remains the transformational experience it claims to be.
Gareth Hughes is the life sciences faculty employability adviser at the University of Bristol; Brian Clegg is a science writer and facilitates the undergraduate writing workshop at the university; Dave Jarman is postgraduate programme director at the university's Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship; and Philip Langton is a senior lecturer in physiology at the university.