Sir Anthony Seldon is the vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, and author of biographies on Prime Ministers from John Major to David Cameron.
Timebomb: How the university cartel is failing Britain’s students, the new report from the think-tank UK2020, is launched at a telling moment in academic history – when concerns about the value for money of university education have never been higher.
The figures clearly demonstrate that as many students in Britain now feel university education is not offering value for money as believe it is. YouGov polling for Timebomb of current students at English universities found that when asked to rate the overall value for money of their university on a scale of one to ten, fewer than three in ten were prepared to give a score of more than seven.
As one student told the report, they are paying “a lot of money for some PowerPoint slides”.
Clearly tuition fees are one major factor responsible for the malaise in how students view higher education. But it goes beyond that. The world is changing very rapidly, and universities are being slow to respond.
Universities are still run predominantly by academics and administrators, for academics and administrators. The producer interest reigns. The voice of the consumer, in other words the student, has not been taken sufficiently into consideration. Yet the world of work is already changing out of all recognition with the advance of digitalisation and globalisation.
The traditional model of three years at university, with wide open spaces of time when academics are writing and students are left to their own devices, is being called increasingly into question.
My own institution, the University of Buckingham, Britain’s first private university, pioneered two-year degree courses 40 years ago. This timeframe will not suit all students but it will suit a significant minority. Two-year degrees fit the same number of teaching weeks into the undergraduate’s time as three-year degrees do. The pace is more intense, much more like the workplace.
I’m delighted that this report is calling for more two-year degrees, not least because this change will enhance the international appeal of British universities to students from abroad.
If institutions follow Buckingham’s lead and offer two-year degrees in serious numbers, one of this report’s findings proves that the demand from students will be significant. YouGov polling for Timebomb found that nearly half of the students surveyed were interested in two-year degrees.
An additional benefit of two-year degrees is their ability to ease pressures on housing supply. The report found that a widespread expansion of two-year degrees would free up as many as 100,000 rooms in towns and cities, the equivalent to 60 per cent of the annual supply of new-build homes.
Universities need to put students first to a far greater extent in other ways also. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), introduced in June 2017, has already begun to redress the balance, which had tilted much too far towards research. I am pleased that my own university came first in the country in the TEF ratings, according to Times Higher Education, but I recognise that we, like universities everywhere, need to do far more to improve the quality of our teaching and learning if we are to fully stretch, inspire and challenge our students.
Universities used to think that academics could teach if they were good at research. This was a very naïve assumption, but it ruled for many years. Good teachers are constantly striving to improve their performance, and have the humility to recognise that they have to constantly work to improve their teaching.
Universities need also to look after their students much better pastorally. The crisis in mental health in higher education is shocking and much of it is avoidable if only universities acted with a greater sense of responsibility towards their students.
Change is in the air. Good teaching and good pastoral care are the natural adjuncts of a two-year degree. In ten years’ time, I would predict that only 50 per cent of degrees will be the traditional three-year model. Two-year degrees will grow significantly in numbers, but so too will part-time degrees, distance learning and four-year courses. The student can only benefit from this much wider variety on offer.
Timebomb does an excellent service in channelling the debate on higher education towards the contemporary structure and its antiquated provision. It will play an important part in shaping our thinking over the next few years.