Crumbling cornerstones

September 29, 1995

Michael Scott believes the traditional concept of a university is crumbling fast, and a good thing too. The popular conception of university education is based on the Oxbridge model and, to a lesser extent, on the redbricks' reputation. In some ways these ideas have an affinity with popular views of banking. The edifice of the high-street bank gives the impression of absolute stability and credibility. The same can be said of the great insurance companies. Yet the greatest insurance organisation of them all, Lloyds, has demonstrated the fallibility of the myth and we need look no further than the Leeson affair to see the vulnerability of the banking industry.

It would be too glib to suppose that higher education stability, standards and quality are uniform across all the traditional or old universities, never mind the new, but there has been and should always remain the ideal to make it so.

Our two great universities, Oxford and Cambridge, are models of excellence for the new universities, as are the eight or ten traditional universities that join them in the Russell Group. However, not all the traditional universities are included and this group alone cannot cater for the increase in higher education required for the economic health of the community.

De Montfort is sometimes considered to be one of the most aggressive of the new universities. Superficially, this might be because of its television and cinema advertising campaign but the university, in drawing attention to itself, does so well beyond the images of an innocent sea lion escaping the ferocious mass of a killer whale or a vulnerable wildebeest avoiding the jaws of an angry crocodile. The challenge that De Montfort, with others, is aggressively accepting is to re-evaluate the concept of a certain kind of university for the next century. It does not wish to ape the older institutions although it wishes to learn from them. Rather it wants to engage in research of the highest standards and see it fulfilled in the reality of the market place and it wants to help provide higher education to all who can benefit from it.

It envisages the university of the future as being intrinsically involved, not only with the 18-plus age group but the 16-plus age group. The barriers between schools, further education colleges and universities needs to be broken down to allow for curriculum planning across a wider age spectrum. Thus, the university has also developed a compact scheme with over 50 schools allowing students access to one of its associate colleges or directly to the university, based on their profile of achievement. This, in turn, allows the university to give preferential A-level offers before the examinations are taken.

It is a first step, which hopefully will develop potential national policies that may concentrate on student-centred rather than teacher-based learning. The aim is to take the pressure off students having to pass barrier examinations at a certain grade in order to enter university, by placing the emphasis on the continued learning experience from 16 onwards.

The examination remains but it is greatly enhanced by the profile. This becomes the cornerstone of access to higher education policy which then needs to interact with commerce and industry to ensure that students are being educated to contribute to the economic growth of the country.

Transferable skills and the overt understanding of their transferability has to take a central place in university education. More is required than that all students in the arts and humanities learn computer skills or mathematical competence or all technology students have the right to evaluate critically a Shakespeare play. What is needed is to provide this and simultaneously to make the process of the learning explicit in itself. To come to terms with King Lear is not narrowly academic but is rather a training of the mind for problem solving in a wider context. To come to terms with aspects of applied mathematics is to come to terms with a discipline of thinking required in the market place. It is appropriate for arts students as much as it is for technologists.

De Montfort has developed a flexible curriculum around core disciplines. It is not a pick-n-mix modularity, but a student-centred learning package with a range of choice within defined boundaries. In this we find the necessary change from staff-centred teaching to student-centred learning, as academic staff are asked to look more towards developing learning programmes than mechanically delivering lectures based on a previous university culture. In developing this, every module can be costed to the penny and calculations can be made relating to the financial commitment for higher education for students, parents and the community.

A cultural change is occurring in British higher education. The fact that the serious and popular press seem recently to have latched on to it with dismay must not alter the course that the present Government has steered, and that the Opposition has broadly endorsed, of providing greater access to higher education.

The new universities must be ones that really serve their society in a practical sense. If this deconstructs the popular image of the university, it does so only to define and re-enforce the purpose of some of them at least for the coming century.

Michael Scott is a pro vice chancellor of De Montfort University.

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