No fun at the fair for bachelors-to-be

January 16, 1998

At a seminar on education in the new millennium, I was struck by the number of well-meant calls for learning to be fun. Fun worries me, however, because it implies something that is superficial. Teachers and lecturers are not in the entertainment business although they should strive to capture interest, stimulate enquiry and stretch intellectual potential.

One problem with mass higher education we instinctively feel but are generally reluctant to face is that once education becomes open to all is it devalued? The Dearing proposals and government policy demand more university students. University participation in France is already at 46 per cent for 18 to 24-year-olds. We need to be on a level with our colleagues in Europe to compete. Despite their embarrassing first-year withdrawal rates, the French appear to take pride in the activity of learning and the equality of opportunity that their culture affords.

In Britain we tend to lace notions of equality with caveats. The call, for example, for greater participation is for more students to take "pre-degree" and "sub-degree" work. Some British educationists hope that widening access will not equate with a fall in standards. They attempt to prevent thereby an educational devaluation of the bachelor's degree caused by the pressure of sheer numbers.

When this policy was proposed 20 years ago, it was wrapped in the introduction of the diploma in higher education. It failed because potential students did not wish to take second best. Students wanted to go to universities, polytechnics and institutions of higher education to take degrees.

Another preventive solution, mainly within the polytechnics, came through the vocational BTEC route of the HND. This was partially successful, but student demand for degree status led to the development of bridging facilities to allow for a year's "top-up" to the degree. Straight HND routes are tending to decline in their attractiveness to students, not to rise.

Nevertheless, the sub-degree route is again being promoted as the means by which access can be widened without diminishing standards. Inadvertently, this may introduce a new binary divide. It will be accompanied, however, by the creation of committees defining benchmarks of standards.

This is admirable, but it brings a further danger. Too great an imposition from the centre will detract from institutional curriculum creativity. The benefits of university autonomy could be lost. We would be imitating the French, not in their pride in learning, but in their centralised control.

The problem may relate to the nature of the bachelor's degree as a gold standard. Paradoxically, at our ancient universities, the terminal award was traditionally the masters. Historically, the bachelors was a staging post on the road to the full qualification. Over years, this practice declined. The masters degree at Oxbridge became an additional qualification, not one earned through further study. Other masters degrees were created as taught higher degree programmes at universities across the country. The earned masters now has to be seen as a pertinent achievable award in any national qualifications framework.

The time has come to realise that aspiring university students and potential employers will not be satisfied with diplomas as terminal qualifications but only as new staging posts on the way to bachelors and to masters degrees. Market forces may once again embarrass educational planners.

Just as we need to avoid terms such as "fun" to describe a supportive educational environment, so we should avoid a divisive discourse around the term "sub-degree". Educational opportunities must be seen to be open to all within the flexibility of a nationally recognised modular system and CATS framework. Such a policy will, nevertheless, need to respect and preserve the autonomy of each university. For the student it will not be "fun". It will be hard work, but it will be rewarding and thereby enjoyable.

Michael Scott is a pro vice chancellor of De Montfort University but writes in a personal capacity.

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