Modules makes sense

December 29, 1995

A debate is fermenting over the allegedly widely differing standards of nominally identical honours degrees in the United Kingdom. These are awarded by the 104 establishments now empowered to do so. In traditional universities, the 2:1 has replaced the 2:2 honours degree as the most frequently awarded degree during the period 1974 to 1995. Doubt has also been cast upon the effectiveness of the external examiner system.

These dilemmas could be reduced drastically if national written examinations were set, marked and assessed by the professional institutions in their respective disciplines. This would show more objectively which universities produce consistently high-quality graduates in a particular discipline, and show greater impartiality as to what is being achieved with taxpayers' money. This should facilitate (and may even reduce the need for) other quality inspections of the universities.

Diversity in the curricula of nominally similar courses could be maintained, even enhanced, by having appropriate choices of question topics in each examination paper and even optional papers where desirable. Nevertheless, in vocationally oriented disciplines it should be relatively easy to specify the core-subject contents of basic courses.

Each university would award its own degrees, but the classification of honours would be influenced significantly by the independent national mark lists, and practical examinations and project work which would continue to be controlled and assessed by staff.

Separating responsibility for teaching from that for written examinations could help bridge the still wide gap between theory and practice by coercing academic and professional institutions to work more closely together.

The time is now ripe for the more widespread use of videos of the most accomplished lectures in basic subjects (eg strength of materials, thermodynamics and fluid mechanics) rather than the reliance solely on numerous individual lecturers presenting nominally the same material annually, with varying degrees of effectiveness, at many places throughout the UK. However this national scheme would need to be backed up by a tutorial system in each university. Then enhanced effectiveness of teaching could be achieved at lower costs.

In order to cope with the recent vastly increased number of students in universities, yet less financial support per student, it appears inevitable that we have to be prepared to implement such changes to our means of delivery of higher education. For instance, the increasing use of one-week, single-subject modules and multimedia tuition tend to release academic staff for longer uninterrupted periods to devote their efforts to other wealth-creating activities. Full and part-time provision, as well as continuing-education courses, (all delivered via one-day or one-week modules) in transferable skills are becoming more popular with the recognition that investments in education and training provide high rates of return to individuals, organisations, commercial enterprises and nations.

But there are dangers in this approach: it must be remembered that, in order to succeed in life, the student needs not just skills, but to maintain and develop an acceptable personality, independence of mind and an autonomy of spirit, and so these should continue to be fostered in universities.

Higher education provision is likely to continue to grow, but this should not be solely by pumping up the same model of a university to even larger sizes. Most of the vast expansion that has occurred has tended to be more of a weaker (ie increasingly overstretched) form of the same, rather than as a result of introducing radically different initiatives, such as the remarkable establishment of the Open University. The OU has excellent teaching material which can be purchased by other universities, avoiding the need for each institution to present its own individual basic coursework. As centres of creative criticism, we in universities are well able to reappraise our methodology in order to satisfy our excellent missions, but why are the majority of us reluctant to do so?

Douglas Probert

Department of applied energy

Cranfield University

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