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Guardian interview with VC Alec Cameron!

Are British degree models stuck in the past?

There has been a “substantial evolution” in higher education, Bell insists. But he adds: “I would acknowledge that for some groups of learners the system isn’t working as well as it might.”

Cameron points out that what universities are offering must be appealing because participation has increased to such impressive levels. “But I think we’ve ‘maxed out’ in terms of participation for what is currently offered,” he adds. If universities are to reach out to new audiences they must change – and that must include rethinking pedagogy, he argues.

“The heavy reliance in many universities on large lecture-based education is a pretty ineffective and antiquated model of delivery,” he says.

“So what will the future look like, if students aren’t sitting in lecture theatres with 100 other students?” I ask.

“If we want to expand participation we need to look at what role online learning should play, and what greater integration between work and study might look like. We need to consider students attending university in intensive blocks of education, and how we utilise the almost half of the year when there are no lectures on campus,” he says.

Are shorter degrees the way to bring new people into higher education?

As part of his mission for more flexible higher education, universities minister Jo Johnson has been pushing hard for more accelerated two-year degrees, enabling students to gain the skills they need and then get on with using them in a job much faster. The idea has raised hackles.

“I think its entirely reasonable that two-year degrees should go into the mix, but I would be sceptical about it being some new Jerusalem,” Bell says. He argues that for young people, going away to university is a rite of passage; it is a process of transitioning into adulthood that most have no desire to rush. “I have talked to our own students’ union and they are very sceptical about the two-year initiative,” he says.

Young people may well be in less of a rush, but isn’t he ignoring mature students who have other family and life pressures and do want to study faster?

“The risk of this kind of debate is it assumes we have a single sector and one type of student,” Bell agrees. For older students at least he concedes that having the option of two-year degrees would be “a really good development”.

Cameron notes that taking students from diverse backgrounds is a big part of Aston’s raison d’etre.

“The way we get them job ready is actually keeping them for four years rather than three years. Eighty per cent of students do a work placement and we’ve demonstrated that is a great way of closing this gap in terms of social capital, which is what gets them a job at the end,” he says. “So the idea that we would take students from a less prepared market and push them through in two years seems to me to be setting them up for failure in the job market.”

Yet he says by asking his student union for their opinion Prof Bell is focusing on the wrong people. “The market for two-year degrees is people who are more mature, have a clear focus, don’t want to study for only half the year, want to get a qualification and then get a return on that investment. They are the students who have been falling out of the sector.”

Have universities ducked out of the part-time market because it is too difficult?

Bell is defensive. Yes, people have dropped out of the undergraduate market, he says, but most universities are offering “quite a suite” of part-time options, including job-related training and “executive education”.

He warns that the government will struggle to inject more cash into part-time learning to address the huge drop in numbers. “If you decide you want to invest more in older learners who want to come back into higher education, you will get pushback from others who are younger who are feeling the financial pressure,” he says.

Cameron argues that the government’s loans are a big part of the problem because they aren’t designed to tempt people who are already earning. “The attraction of a deferred income-contingent loan assumes you’re not going to be earning for a few years. If you’re already in employment and your salary is already above £21,000 – soon to be £25,000 – you don’t get the advantage that an income-contingent loan provides.”

He thinks instead we need to accept that people may drop in and out of the system – and make it easier for them to do so.

In Australia, the practice of credit transfer is far more established, meaning that students can resume their education at a different institution and know they will get credit for what they have already done at their last university, he says. This could resuscitate the part-time market, but he warns that universities need to run with this opportunity before the government decides to impose it.


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