UNDERGRADUATES used to "read" for their degrees; they were not "taught". They did not even "study" for the qualification. Theirs was a student-centred activity, in the library or laboratory. They had tutorial support and the opportunity to listen, through lectures, to research in progress.
The concept of being "student-centred", therefore, is not new. Indeed, it could be argued that, today, that focus implies only one essential difference - the library, as the traditional reading resource, has become electronic. Students can still "read" for their degrees, but they will be using the information super-highways.
Yet, there is an anomaly in this argument. To "read" for a degree demands an element of motivation and intellectual maturity with which not all are blessed. Tutors of the top 5 per cent of A-level candidates admit that not even the cream of the country's youth can necessarily work with the independence demanded of a student-centred degree.
So, over the past 30 years, the emphasis has moved towards the concept of the "taught" degree. The subject panels of the Council for National Academic Awards, with a membership drawn largely from universities, introduced syllabus preparation that asked questions of the teaching teams in relation to syllabus proposals. Aims, objectives, teaching methods, content and book-lists, were interrogated through subject-peer review. The practice was innovatory and was to alter the concept of university education itself.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England subject assessment boards now use a more sophisticated evaluation model for all universities but one which has its roots in the earlier practice. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many universities also developed taught masters' programmes.
Over time two partial solutions to the demands of pedagogy were found: one was modularity, the other, the use of new technology. Together these may help develop "the virtual university". But in moving towards a technologically oriented, student-centred model - by producing the equivalent of "reading" for a degree - will universities place too great a demand on the large student population? Is the country again fudging the issue of economic demand caused by widened access?
On the other hand, have UK universities fully accepted the educational and cultural change that modularity demands? The suspicion must be that many of the universities which have gone modular, have done so because of financial and administrative pressure.
The response to both imperatives has been to unitise traditional linear programmes, so producing what some will regard as a hybrid form of degree. In some cases, this may work, but there are problems. The first re-lates to the students' sense of identity with their subjects. The second concerns the external examiner system, and the third questions the tradition of degree classification.
There are answers. Students may find their educational identity through proper mentor support. The external examiner system can find its emphasis not through summative assessment but in module development, checking stan- dards over a cross-section of activities rather than focusing on individual students. Classification may become less important than students' attainment records.
Each solution helps develop a new student-centred culture - wherein modules can be designed to be "read", "studied" or "taught". Universities can shoulder the responsibility of ensuring variety in module design and pathway to promote standards and progress.
As yet, in British higher education, the surface of this has only been scratched, so far. Fundamental issues relating to this evolving educational culture still need to be addressed if the new form of student-centred learning is to thrive.
Michael Scott is pro vice chancellor of De Montfort University.