Student Focus: Poor bums, shoddy seats

January 19, 2001

In the future, degrees could be ten a penny, while a 'prestigious' PhD might cost a mint,.

Pants lined with sensors that detect and respond to changes in the body's temperature have been shown to improve learning and memory," trumpeted The Daily Mail recently.

Forget the internet and video conferencing, electronic underpants hold the key to a more successful student life. And hot on their heels comes the "smart shoe", which promises to generate enough electricity from walking to power a personal computer.

These are just two examples of the brave new technological dawn apparently awaiting higher education. But such predictions are usually little more than hot air. More wily observers tend to play it safe, restricting their predictions to the extension of information technology and the subsequent broadening of the geographic confines of the campus.

Technological change of one sort or another dominates discussions about the future of British higher education. While recent American studies have concentrated on issues such as the changing role of parents in students' lives and the growing gender divide, British academics appear obsessed with government policy and its emphasis on educating a generation that can cope with the "information economy".

A much greater proportion of young people must be educated to at least a basic undergraduate level, the mantra goes, or Britain will fall behind its competitors in the high-tech economy. Other motivations for the government's ambitious target of 50 per cent participation in higher education, including old-fashioned ideas of equity, are almost always put in the context of this economic imperative.

Of course, some American politicians have been ploughing a similar furrow. The difference, according to Frank Furedi, reader in sociology at the University of Kent, is that Westminster politicians have a unique grip on the direction of higher education in the United Kingdom.

"It is the most homogenised higher education system in the world," he says. "Every single university is run on the same kind of central funding mechanism, everyone has to deal with the same quality measures, every subject is supposed to be taught in the same way and, ultimately, everything is determined by the way the government is pushing."

Furedi says that although the United Kingdom is becoming more like the United States, it does not have the advantages of America's "more flexible" system. He is pessimistic about the future. He says the quality of university education is already declining as institutions are forced to get more bums on seats.

"You can talk about a McDonaldisation of higher education. I think PhDs will be where students come under the kind of pressure that would have previously been associated with undergraduate study at a good university."

Undergraduates will be offered "a period of extended adolescence" as a homogenised higher education system increasingly caters to the lowest common denominator to accommodate the government's access targets, he says.

"We are talking about students reading not books, but hand-outs given out by lecturers and being assured they will get a 2.1 for just covering the work," Furedi says.

Bruce Charlton, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Newcastle, is scarcely more positive. He says government policy aims to equip higher education students for new types of jobs that require more advanced abilities in accessing information sources, writing reports, using spreadsheets and word processors and participating in structured arguments. But they will not need, and increasingly will not be offered at undergraduate level, a traditional formal academic training, with its emphasis on originality and rigour.

Charlton expects the changed role of undergraduate degrees to lead to a radical transformation of the student experience. Brighter candidates may move through their lower degrees more quickly than in the past and start them younger. Physical attendance at the institution is likely to become optional, with a large number of students able to cover the groundwork by taking an "e-course" from home. An increasing proportion of tutors will be young graduates and postgraduates teaching a standard curriculum.

A few institutions, Oxbridge and other prominent research universities, are likely to become exclusively postgraduate and act as the centres of most serious research. Others, the equivalent of the US's liberal arts colleges, will charge wealthy parents for traditional academic training, while far more students will travel abroad for college, Charlton says.

Wendy Piatt, a research fellow in education at the Institute for Public Policy Research, paints a less alarming picture, but one still dominated by the government's policy of increasing access to higher education.

She says students will need "more acclimatisation" than in the past, but that does not mean devaluation. It could spell changes to the way degrees are classified with more levels of difference, she predicts, and students could be assessed on a wider range of criteria than exam results.

Piatt says: "There will be more coursework, credit accumulation and modularised work. There will be many more students taking part-time courses. Instead of disapproving of students taking part-time jobs, academics will have to start accommodating them. Indeed, many more courses are likely to incorporate work experience in their assessment."

But perhaps the most important change, according to Piatt, will be the beginning of the breakdown of the monolithic, centrally planned funding structure that dominates British higher education.

Our hypothetical student in 2010 is likely to be paying for his or her own fees, within the context of a government-moderated loan system. More radically, those fees are likely to vary according to the cost of the course. A law course at Oxford, with expensive professors and sparkling prospects, will set students back a lot more than a media studies degree at a less prestigious institution.

"If we come to that kind of situation, we could be talking about a higher education sector changing according to students' and parents' demands, rather than centrally ordained policy," Piatt says.

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