Uni Entry

5/6/2008

Education is something about which one should be objective, but I guess I’ve become too knowledgeable to remain objective.

University entrance in the UK is a thorny subject. Most people who pontificate on it are equipped only with ignorance and bias, as they are about modern degree programs. Having worked extensively in the British university system and to some extent overseas I do have some expertise in this area.

Some myths; not all degree courses are easy and were much tougher in the past. Different, in some cases yes, but easier, no.

Media, sport, leisure etc. are all soft subjects that are not worthy of being on any university curriculum. Media falls within the creative industries sector that now accounts for about 10.4% of this country’s Gross Domestic Product. It seems pretty important to me, even, dare I say it, vital that we educate and train our young people to service and grow this super successful sector of our economy. The same case can be made for sports and leisure, ever growing parts of our society. How are we going to excel if we don’t educate?

When I was a kid something under 4% of our school leavers had places available for them within the British university system. That number has increased by more than tenfold. Therefore there are more opportunities, for a more varied series of courses, in a disparate plethora of guises and places. Currently it is more like America than our own past.

We have very strict rules of how to keep some kind of parity between the different courses at different universities. This is not achieved on a trust basis, as might have been the case in the past. Now there are major internal and external inspections conducted of a very thorough basis. No detail escapes the attention of these bodies. I have been through this process on several occasions and as they say in the proverbs, no one expected the Spanish Inquisition!

Each course also has its own Exam Boards and External Examiners to keep the course team honest. These inspections are, at least, annual, and can be more often if necessary. You cannot serve beyond 3-4 years in the capacity of External Examiner as familiarity might tend toward chumminess and collaboration.

In addition to all of this there are course documents for every aspect of every course, and these are distributed to academic institutions, the teaching staff, and above all others, the students. If anything doesn’t meet these written requirements there are several methods of putting matters right. This system is rigorous and has worked well.

The result of this is that there is some measure of equivalence between, let’s say, a Criminology course in two different universities, wherever they are in the country. As a consequence if a student graduates with a 2:1 honours degree at any of our universities we know they had roughly the same education. It is true that the standards vary from one place to another, but not so that they are unrecognisable, one from the other. This variation is at its most exaggerated between the 15 top universities and their newest counterparts.

But the truth is that the British system tends towards feudal towers of power, silos of knowledge, jealously guarded by the different heads of school. These schools appear to be led by gentlemen who combine the wisdom of youth with the energy of old age.

In the newer universities these schools were not purely agglomerations of subjects or programmes of study, but more likely, were the local Polytechnic educating in the more technical knowledge sets, mostly vocationally. These were converted to Higher Education, university status in the last 15 – 20 years. Each of these brought with them their own ethos and history, and usually their own campuses, which have since been rationalized and generally rebuilt as part of British education’s huge capital growth.

One of the problems most of the new universities have experienced, to varying degrees, has been the retention of their newly recruited students. Some institutions have reported up to 50% drop out rates by the end of year one. 20% is a more common figure. I believe this is a by-product of totally inappropriate recruitment procedures. If there were a more rigorous interview procedure and a better understanding by students of what their courses would entail this would lead to more square pegs in square holes.

There is another, inescapable conclusion that has been largely ignored. This is that too many young people who are simply not suited to academic pursuits are being pressured into pursuing higher education when they don’t want to do so, or are incapable.

During my work as a part of the degree validation team from Britain’s excellent Open University Validation Service I was sent to examine a university program in a German city near Lake Constance. It pointed the way to a different type of university experience that we might do well to imitate. There the Professoriate didn’t select their intake. Employers, who sponsored the program and the students, made their own choices from amongst their young staff. They generally selected people who they considered would benefit from higher education. The selected staff had the option of going back to school. If they agreed to do so they faced a very rigorous education that was broken down into six month sections over a couple of years, with no holiday breaks. After the first six months of study the students were sent back to their commercial companies to put into practice what they had been learning. They then had to write reflectively about this when they returned to academia. This then escalated in difficulty and complexity until they were of much more worth to themselves, their commercial enterprises and most of all, society.

I had the opportunity to explore the university, this course, the sponsors and the academic leaders. They were a might impressive bunch. The sponsors overcame my reticence about their method of recruitment that had resulted in a zero drop out rate. In comparison with Britain there was total involvement by commercial partners at the most senior of levels. I sat with the bosses of major corporations for several hours whereas in the UK you would be lucky to meet the junior Human Resources officer for an hour. During lunch we were introduced, in private, to a cross section of these German students. They were erudite, bright, appreciative and very aware of the benefits of their university course. I asked them their ambition. I expected to hear that these super bright and committed students would be seeking senior appointments within the businesses, which had invested so much time, energy and money in them. Imagine my surprise when they almost unanimously expressed the desire to come to London to work in our creative industries. Where did we go right after doing so much wrong?

As Mary Feldman, the gifted comedian who I had the honour of playing soccer with many times during the early 80’s said, the pen is mightier than the sword, and considerably easier to write with.