The UK government must ensure core subjects are taught in every region

A national curriculum relating to vital knowledge and skills could also help assure equal access to high-quality courses, says Ian Pace

October 13, 2022
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The wisdom of what has been called the UK’s “boarding school” model of higher education is regularly questioned. In a parliamentary debate in 2010, for instance, former Conservative MP Tony Baldry suggested that it would be more cost-effective for mature students to study as close as possible to their own home. The then business secretary, Vince Cable, expressed the broader view that “we could move to a more sensible system whereby many students study in their home town”.

Meanwhile, in David Lodge’s 1988 novel Nice Work, factory manager Vic Wilcox expresses disdain for the lavish student accommodation that he sees, believing that most students “could live at home and go to their local colleges. Like I did”. Academic Robyn Penrose retorts that “leaving home is part of the experience of going to university” – though not necessarily of going to polytechnics, which she views as “cheap and nasty”.

Lodge was writing at a time when less than 20 per cent of school-leavers entered higher education and undergraduates still received maintenance grants. By 2010, the proportion was approaching 50 per cent. Moreover, in 2020-21, 46 per cent of new students (excepting those going to for-profit providers) enrolled at post-1992 institutions, formerly Penrose’s despised polytechnics. Fees had been in place for over a decade and Cable allowed their trebling to a maximum of £9,000 per annum from 2012-13.

Consequently, student accommodation has become big business, largely taken over by private providers (accounting for 77 per cent of new student beds in 2018). Rents are significantly more than when I was a student in the mid-1980s (before rent controls were abolished in 1989). The levels of student debt are, accordingly, becoming larger and larger – especially during a cost-of-living crisis.

Given that abolishing fees is unlikely to be on any major political party’s agenda at present given the cost implications, I recognise the arguments for a more localised model of higher education. Currently, only about 20-25 per cent of students live at their parental homes. A move towards a greater percentage of “commuter students”, if far from ideal in various respects, would avoid some student debt – as it does in many European countries.

Obviously, some students do not have this option. Some parents would charge rent, some parental residences are not safe places, and so on. Maximum support would have to be given to non-commuters if commuting became the norm.

There are wider potential problems, too, regarding the availability of institutions and courses. While most students living in or around some major cities have a wide range of choices, this is by no means always the case elsewhere. In my subject, music, since the closure of the department in Exeter, the only major offering south-west of Bristol and Bath is at Falmouth University. Alternative options amount to the University of Plymouth's much smaller and limited department, Plymouth Marjon University for music technology and theatre, and a few private providers. Unless they lived relatively close to Falmouth, it would be difficult for a commuter student in the south-west (an area with a patchy public transport network) to consider studying music in a major department. East Anglia and Cumbria are also poorly served.

With this in mind, more radical solutions should be considered. First, the government should require that a range of core subjects be made available by at least one university within any area of a particular size and population, regardless of recruitment numbers. These subjects should include well-established disciplines: the major sciences, engineering, computing, literature, languages, history, geography, music and others. Determining the areas relative to population would not be easy, especially in sparsely populated regions, but extra provision of subsidised transport dedicated to students could help here.

My second, and possibly more contentious, proposal is that all higher education institutions should be required to implement some type of tertiary national curriculum. This should encompass a range of core modules relating to vital knowledge and skills. These would need to be determined for each subject but, at least in the case of arts and humanities, should encompass some degree of historical and geographical breadth and entail critical thinking and reflection on the nature and history of the discipline. Such modules could be devised as a more rigorous expansion of the Quality Assurance Agency’s subject benchmarks.

If properly thought through, this move would make it easier for more students to live at the parental home and still be able to access a wide range of subjects, with more robust guarantees of actual content than currently exist. It could mitigate against a race to the bottom regarding content, so that neither vital but challenging core modules nor intellectual rigour were sacrificed in the name of student satisfaction. And it would at least partly diminish the destructive model of universities as competitors.

What would be compromised is some degree of institutional autonomy. But if it led to increased participation in higher education, that may be a price worth paying.

Ian Pace is professor of music and strategic adviser (arts) at City, University of London.

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Reader's comments (1)

It is really sad that there is any encouragement to live long-term in the parental home when one is an adult. It is indeed the whole point that you go away to study and develop away from often stifling parental input. If we are viewing education as just a way to produce a stream of skilled conformists then fine but that is not how I see the transformational potential of education. Living at home risks what I would describe as the "Educating Rita" issue, where the wider family group does not see that one cannot be educated and remain the same. This will always be a problem for the "working class" and one that I have observed. Sometimes, being educated means that you can never "fit in" to the family as previously and so significant tension could result.