If I redesigned UK higher education, I would…

Pay-as-you-go modules? Choose-your-own first year? Glenn Fosbraey looks to the blue sky for (sometimes radical) ideas for improving the HE experience

Glenn Fosbraey 's avatar
University of Winchester
13 Jan 2023
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I wanted to become a lecturer because of a film, and a teen film at that. Accepted, a mid-2000s run-of-the mill thing, follows the plight of 18-year-old Bartleby who has been rejected from every university he’s applied for but hasn’t told his parents. To save face, Bartleby sets up a fake university, into which he’s “accepted” but whose website then accidentally starts accepting other applicants. With tuition fee cheques rolling in, Bartleby has no choice but to make it a real university (well, he could return the cheques and confess all, but that wouldn’t make much of a film). But as Bartleby has no idea how the HE system works, everything is designed on the hoof by the students themselves: curriculum, modules, when classes take place, etc, etc.

This idea set off something in me, and that something has never let go. My own student experience, although I thoroughly enjoyed it, was the polar opposite, with its strict timetables, curricula and unit credits.

And now, 15 years into my academic career and having served on both sides of numerous validation and revalidation panels, I understand why things follow the traditional approach more than Bartleby’s. There must be quality control; there must be evidence that students’ tuition fees are wisely spent; there must be a plan to ensure students are given the transferable and employability skills to set them up in a satisfying and highly skilled job after they graduate. And, within all that, we have the practicalities that Accepted glosses over, such as timetabling, staff-to-student ratios, marking turnaround and administration.

When all that is taken into consideration, Accepted seems even more pie in the sky than I first thought (and this is a film where a telekinesis module is on offer). But surely there’s a middle ground to be trodden, one that looks after the current and future welfare of the students and provides stringent quality control, but also tears up the rule book along the way (or, at least, puts a tiny rip in its pages)?

Here are my radical ideas, all of which edge towards a Bartleby world rather than an “I’m a sensible academic now and none of this is practical” world. That can come later after I’ve got these things out of my system.

1. An ‘anything goes’ first year

I’ve always looked at the first year of the American HE system with admiration, nodding with approval as I hear about how an English literature major took modules in psychology, philosophy, history and geography in their first year. What a wonderful breadth of knowledge they’re acquiring. Yes, American universities can offer this kind of flexibility because such degrees run for four years; this would play havoc with student finance if rolled out en masse across all UK unis.

But what if we could have three-year degrees where the first year was like this? All we’d need would be an essay or presentation assignment at the end of it where the students argued why the modules they took were both relevant to the degree award they wanted to emerge with and met the programme outcomes. And the more radical their choices, the better their powers of persuasion would have to be (and no one can tell me that the art of rhetoric isn’t one of the finest transferable skills there is).

So, a BA in archaeology student wants to take creative writing, drama and fashion marketing modules in first year? Fine. Now just persuade us why that’s all relevant.

Rather them than me, but I’m sure it’s doable…

2. Choose your own assignment

Similarly to my first radical idea, this puts the impetus on students to choose their own destinies. Those who want to play it safe: by all means do so and stick to the one-assignment-per-module model. Staff can even provide a list of possible assignments for them to choose from. Those who thrive on a riskier approach? Incorporate all your learning into a giant assignment at the end of the semester in whichever format you like. Enjoy writing essays? Go for it. Thrive on presentations? Present away. Want to create a walk-through VR exhibition with your work set out like exhibits in a museum? Why not. (Lots of reasons why not come to mind, granted, but I’m in Bartleby mode, remember?)

3. Pay-as-you-go learning

A nightmare for marking tutors, this one, but hear me out. Students can opt for how many credits they get per module, based on when they decide to exit it. Based on a 15-credit module broken down into divisions of five, if a student fancies doing four weeks and then submitting the special “four-week assignment”, they get five credits. If they want to do eight weeks and complete the eight-week assignment, they get 10 credits. Stay for the duration, complete the final assignment, and they get all 15. Like I said, this sounds like a nightmare for the markers, and no cakewalk for the administrators, but it would focus the mind somewhat and allow students to decide when they felt they had all they wanted from a particular module.

4. Proper staff-student communal areas

There’s a time and a place for the old-fashioned lecturer’s office and we need to keep them. If a student wants to discuss something sensitive or private, for example, or if a lecturer needs somewhere quiet (and away from home) to write or plan, then they’re essential.

But the office also creates a bit of a hierarchal barrier between student and tutor that can be unhelpful. For me, it’s always smacked a little too much of school – nervously knocking on the headmaster’s door before being granted entry. (Surely this isn’t just me?) For matters that don’t require privacy, neutral territory can be great, because it allows for more balanced conversation, less nerves on the student’s part, and thus a more productive experience for all. Many of us already do this, meeting in the café areas etc, but a communal space where staff spend their “office” hours and students work on their assignments may succeed in formalising such ad hoc scenarios.

5. Optional fourth year

While some students come to a natural and satisfactory conclusion of their uni lives by the end of third year, others take longer to feel comfortable in their own skins, and then all of a sudden it’s bang, degree over and out into the workplace, like it or not. With mental health stats showing that the months just after graduating are the most precarious, perhaps HE institutions could do more to soften the transition. Many students do this on their own steam anyway by opting to stay on for master’s or research degrees, but some might not want to go down this route. Obviously, it would be great to provide employment at the uni for a year for every student who wanted to stay on, but that would bankrupt institutions more quickly than you could say: “Too many people, not enough jobs”.

So, what else? Links with local businesses to offer transitions into an apprenticeship or internship year working in a subject-relevant position, all while still getting the support of their university? Mentoring current students, with a CertHE or DipHE qualification at the end of it? Volunteering schemes overseen by the uni? Plenty of options.

OK, blue-sky thinking over. Now to go back and pick holes in everything I’ve just written. But it’s important to do it this way round, isn’t it? Coming up with the idea first, then figuring out its limitations rather than allowing the limitations to dictate the ideas we have. We may never see the kind of freedom in HE that Accepted mooted, and that’s just as well. But it doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

Glenn Fosbraey is associate dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Winchester.

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