The causes of the university problem are readily apparent. Largely they stem from the remarkable rate of growth of higher education. A university degree, once a rarity of intrinsic value, has become a commodity product. No longer can we ignore the associated costs. Too many students regret life-long debts as a consequence of ill-chosen and often worthless degrees. As a society we divert about 7% of our workforce into education, far too many of them unproductively. Though many students make good use of their time in university, for too many it is directionless, developing the habits of an idle receiving from society rather than contributing. University education, through the loans system, has become a form of blackmail: unless you take out this loan of £50,000, and agree to ‘pay it back’ by a 9% extra rate of tax for most of your working life, you will be doomed to a low status non-graduate job. What we are doing is unfair to students but it is foolishly damaging to society.
In overt and covert ways, we spend as much on higher education as on the health service. This is excessive and no-one doubts the need to keep the cost of education in check, or even reduce it. The one constraint is that reducing the numbers of students admitted would be impossible in the current political climate. Wide access to higher education is supported by many on both sides of the political spectrum, being as dear to many instinctive Conservatives as it is to Labour: Keir Starmer mentioned education specifically in his recent conference speech. Raising the hurdle for entry to higher education and inevitably reducing the availability of university places across the board would fall at the first post because of the obvious political problems it would cause. All this points to the need for greater efficiency in delivering university education, something more important now with 40% of the population going to university than it was in the 1960s with a mere 5%. Universities need to deliver degree courses more flexibly, less expensively and alongside full-time work – all parts of the vision behind social activist Michael Young‘s creation of the Open University.
One obvious way of making changes in higher education would be the formation of new universities. Though at first this approach seems attractive, it suffers the disadvantage that one would be creating something of the same type – a university modelled on existing universities. This has been the fate of the Open University which, particularly because it has taken advantage of the current loan facilities to raise its fee level, is no longer so much different from any other university. Any alternative university would suffer the same fate. The Office for Students would take control and, like other universities, a new university would be tied up with red tape and paying its boss up to £700,000. Any significant improvement in higher education needs a more radical approach.
The only route to significant change in university education is to separate, at least in part, the delivery of education from its assessment, something that we are already used to in secondary education. In schools, teachers deliver education to the children. Come the age of 16 for GCSE, 18 for A levels, students sit external exams by which exam boards assess what the child can do. With very little structural modification, we can implement the same division within higher education, something that would enable radical innovation in the way that we deliver degree courses. Let us consider how this might be achieved.
At the moment universities deliver education to their students, through lectures, tutorials, seminars and various other means. Come the end of the course, sometimes in earlier years as well, universities assess students, traditionally by examinations and a dissertation or two (extendend pieces of writing). Most of the degree class is determined by final year work but sometimes second year assessments contribute. The assessments, exams and dissertations are set and marked by the university. So when one learns that Jo ‘got a first in history’, it typically means that she scored an average of over 70% in the final and second year examinations and dissertations.
To separate degree assessment from delivery, universities (all of them), a few subjects at a time, as part of their public benefit obligations as charities, would need to make their assessment procedures available to external candidates, who would be assessed and graded alongside internal candidates. Universities would therefore need to make generally available exam syllabuses and past papers, material which they mostly publish online already. External candidates would therefore have a choice: they could apply for university in the normal way, as an internal candidate, relying on a university’s existing teaching structure; or they could choose to be an external candidate and obtain from whomever they choose (no-one if that’s their choice) whatever tuition they think best to deliver the education they wish to receive. Such external students would then sit the exams and submit the dissertations they chose alongside internal students being taught by the university. External students would then be graded in exactly the same way as internal students.
Universities would need to charge substantial, but not unreasonable, exam fees – in the order of £2,000 in total for the degree – typically £500 for the second year component and £1,500 for the final component. These changes could sit alongside the existing higher education structure, with the existing loan system, so that students could choose which route they wished to take.
Let us think exactly what we would be doing. We would be retaining the monopoly that universities already have on assessing and grading students. External candidates would be treated in exactly the same way as internal candidates. As with existing university grading, the process would be anonymised so that markers would not know whether they were grading an internal or external candidate. Standards of degrees would be unaffected by such a change. What we would be doing, however, would be opening up universities to competition in the delivery of the degree courses. This is exactly what was intended when the maximum permitted fee was raised to £9,000. It was intended that this would encourage competition between universities so that students could choose providers who charged lower fees. All this measure does is enable other providers to offer alternative routes to students.
In due course, with today’s technology, universities would realise that they were in a strong position to compete in such a market. They would soon be setting up video cameras to record university lectures and making these lectures and the associated paperwork freely available online, with competition from other providers being a strong influence on the fees they charge.
What would then happen?
First, universities would protest loudly. They would say that the outcome for students is not just the exam results but importantly the magical ‘process’ by which they deliver education. Whether or not that is true, universities should be allowed to make their case. But they should also allow the consumers of their degrees – employers and the students themselves – to make those judgements for themselves. It may be that internal candidates at top universities would always be regarded as something especially good. Or perhaps the market would think otherwise, regarding external candidates as equivalent, or even better.
Secondly, suppliers of tuition would spring up all over the place. They would be unregulated just as music teachers are now and, most importantly, should continue to be unregulated. Many musicians now choose to study singing or an instrument privately, rather than the costs and the disruption of a full-time course. They supplement their studies with courses from providers like Morley College Opera School, developing their skills alongside other full-time commitments, and take their diplomas as external candidates. Those training in dance and the stage also already use many private providers. Existing universities would compete with private providers, winning students when their offer was judged by students to be better than the alternatives at delivering education for their own examinations.
Thirdly, the absence of regulation would result in innovation, with study much more under the control of students themselves. Not least, there would be ways for a student to get a university degree without the huge costs of £50,000 of debt and the loss of three years’ worth of income. There would be a huge number of part-timers interleaving study with normal jobs. Some universities might stick to their guns and require residence in a particular town for a minimum number of years. Others would respond to market forces and allow more flexibility, so that a student could prepare privately beforehand, shortening his or her time as an internal candidate to two years, perhaps even one. The student who ‘wasted’ three years on the wrong first degree would have an affordable route to a different degree without facing the further £27,000 course fees while barred from a loan for a second degree.
Medicine, nursing and veterinary science, where practical training is an integrated part of the course, would continue unaffected. In subjects like applied science or engineering, students could choose to take a theoretical and exam course only, or seek separate provision for practical work, something universities could still provide. More students would study from home, returning some student accommodation to family homes. Overseas students, where the demand is for internal studentship, would be unaffected.
If, in reading this, you detect a cynicism about education, you would be wrong. These thoughts come from someone who loves education and has delighted in his decades in this most noble and rewarding profession. But in the same way that one sees that it is a mistake to let the pharmaceutical industry decide what medicines we should take, or the heating and ventilating industry to push heat pumps on us, or the auto industry to promote electric cars, one sees the error of allowing the university system to determine the structure of higher education. At the moment, universities have a stranglehold and they are misusing it – to no-one’s benefit. Only by the radical step of separating the delivery of education from its assessment will we be able to reform the university sector and release that stranglehold.