Alan Ryan

June 8, 2007

Among the familiar hazards of advancing age, one of the worst is the tendency to repeat oneself. Going on like a cracked record is not how most of us want to be known. On the other hand, another of the hazards of advancing age is that the world itself gets a bit repetitive; bright, not-so-bright and positively daft ideas get recycled, and it's asking a lot of the ageing brain to expect it to crank out entirely new responses as distinct from, "Oh, that again."

These gloomy reflections are sparked by two recent bits of news. One is the enthusiastic support of Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, for accelerated, two-year degree courses, an idea that was aired 30 years ago by Shirley Williams as part of her famous Thirteen Points; the other was the report of a Harvard University task force that pointed out (again) that Harvard's research pre-eminence was not matched by its quality as a teaching institution. Or, as my colleagues used to have it, the difference between Harvard and Princeton University was that Harvard was hell for undergraduates and heaven for the faculty while Princeton was the other way round. Eminence at Harvard was measured by the rarity of your encounters with undergraduates, while at Princeton even a Nobel prize did not save you from your obligations to the students.

These are, of course, bits of news from opposite ends of the higher education spectrum. The idea that you can get a student through a perfectly satisfactory - non-foundation - degree in eight quarters rather than nine terms is relevant to people (and places) whose great aim is to collect a BA as fast as possible and then to get on with life. The University of Buckingham has been doing it like this for 30 years. It hasn't always been thought of in purely utilitarian terms, though. At the University of Chicago in the 1930s you could take the appropriate examinations whenever you felt ready, and if that got you a BA after two semesters, good for you.

The scholarly life was supposed to start afterwards, when you could take as long as you liked to acquire a doctorate.

The objections to doing an undergraduate degree at a run come more, I suspect, from the faculty than from students. Packing nine terms teaching into eight quarters means a teaching year of some 40 weeks, plus the usual week of cranking up and winding down at the end of each quarter. This leaves four weeks free for holidays, research, course planning and all the other stuff that occupies us during what is jokingly referred to as the vacation. Of course, any system that runs on a four-quarter schedule works quite differently: faculty teach three quarters maximum. This, in turn, means that the argument for a two-year degree pattern isn't an argument for doing it cheaply; you need as many faculty as before. The advantage - where there is one - is for the student who wants to get on with it and doesn't particularly want to spend two long vacations doing good works or exploring new places.

It is the pattern of many masters courses, which start in October of year one and end in September of year two; they do not make life difficult for faculty because the summers are usually spent on extended essays and dissertations and not in weekly classes and seminars. But it is a wholly different animal from the liberal arts ideal behind the Harvard task-force report. That is all about education taken slowly and reflectively.

My only gripe against Mr Rammell is that his interests are too one-sided; like his predecessors, he doesn't understand the virtues of American liberal arts colleges, and he has nothing to say about the less utilitarian sorts of higher education. But it is there that the American young get taught better than anywhere else. They are at the opposite end of the spectrum from vast, anonymous state university degree factories; they have the same staff-to-student ratios as Ivy League universities such as Princeton, and it pays off in the quality of the teaching and the intellectual development of the students. Because the faculty do not supervise graduates, students in their third and fourth years get treated like Ivy League graduate students, and unsurprisingly they go on to graduate work in higher percentages than their Ivy League peers. It has long seemed to me that one of the missed opportunities of recent years has been the failure to turn some of the Robbins universities or some of the innumerable teacher-training colleges into a home-grown version of the American liberal arts college. But that is certainly something I have said before... Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford University.

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