Mix and match

January 10, 1997

The traditional campus model of a university is inappropriate for today's students' needs, says Bryan Nicholson, who believes a creative blend of further and higher education provision is the way to equal the success of other European countries.

We need to educate more young people, more broadly and for longer than ever before. Skills need to be updated and students need to prepare themselves for a portfolio of careers. This is what is required if we in the United Kingdom are to compete in the global economy.

Of course, we all know there is a great gap between these objectives and what we achieve. About a third of young people do exceptionally well. But even many of them lack the key skills, knowledge and attitudes that will ensure they maintain and improve their skills over a lifetime.

Perhaps half of our young people are not academic in their approach to learning. And within this group, there is a hard core who are totally disaffected. The school curriculum, in particular, does not properly recognise how it fails those who underachieve. We need to concentrate more on vocational qualifications and achieve learning modes that are vital to encourage people to continue their learning. We need to weld together academic and vocational routes and qualifications more strongly to provide a curriculum that allows more people to achieve.

To help us meet these objectives, radical solutions are needed. Yes, we can be proud of the degree to which post-16 staying-on rates have increased and numbers have expanded while standards have been essentially maintained. But if we are to catch up with other European nations, we need far more rapid progress. Tiger economies are, of course, way ahead of us.

We cannot continue to be wedded to higher education as a mausoleum. We have structures that encourage young people to leave home and spend three or four years studying. This is how universities were first established. Times, technology and the global economy have moved on.

We need to be constantly creative in education. Resources are important, but they are always too few. It is always possible that if you do things differently, operate different systems, that miracles can be manufactured. But with current modes of thinking we will never reach the levels of our competitor nations. The Open University has shown one way forward in terms of cost-effective delivery of higher education. It offers high-quality learning, with flexibility, to large numbers of people who would not previously have considered higher education. It raises the question: how appropriate is the traditional campus model of a university?

Structures have changed, too, with further education colleges offering flexible study patterns to people who would not generally have thought about continuing their education. We are seeing the blurring of barriers between further and higher education, with increasing numbers of people choosing to study locally. This is happening haphazardly and a much public money is involved.

We know that 33 per cent of young people go into higher education - only 25 per cent of these go to universities and the remaining 8 per cent study for higher education in the further education system. And if you add part-time study, the further education sector delivers 13 per cent of all higher education. Further education now offers university level courses in a mix of provision. My own university's courses can be studied in colleges around the region. Universities and further education colleges have worked out arrangements that mean better access for more people.

I hope the Dearing inquiry will point a direction for the future development of this relationship. I know it has been looking at how students could transfer from community colleges in the United States, with two-year associate degree programmes, to the third year of undergraduate programmes at four-year institutions - a boon for widening participation. Distinctive two-year higher education courses are also advocated by the Further Education Funding Council in its response to the Dearing inquiry. Also, in recent years we have seen the piloting of two-year degrees.

Is it not time now to reconsider the question of young people's participation in higher education? We presently have a 33 per cent participation rate among young people and were moving towards 40 per cent until the numbers were capped. To escape from that trap, and to do it without increasing public expenditure, you need a different way of looking at the issue. One approach would be to aim for 50 per cent of young people to have four years post-16 education, say, by the millennium. This could enable the sorts of thinking I have outlined above to be brought to bear on the problem.

The expanded role for further education entails a changed role for higher education. It may well mean that higher education focuses more on research and postgraduate work and perhaps less on teaching. Open and distance learning are becoming increasingly popular because they are convenient. People want access to learning at times and in places that cause minimal disruption to their lives. They will look for flexible, modular, courses with multiple entry and exit points, with opportunities for credit accumulation and transfer. The OU has shown that supported open learning that blends high-quality multimedia teaching materials with locally based tutorial support meets those needs effectively and in a way that combines high quality with low cost.

A great opportunity exists to bring all these strands of development together and articulate a national view, with plenty of scope for creativity and innovation, to give us a mass higher education system. I hope the Dearing inquiry will prove radical in its recommendations and will act as the catalyst for change.

Sir Bryan Nicholson is chancellor of Sheffield Hallam, University and pro chancellor of The Open University.

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