So much beauty out there

October 17, 2008

Stay out of school, kids.

Filed under: All,When I rule the world — Josh @ 5:19 pm
Tags: ,

Obviously when I become absolute ruler of the world, minor inconveniences such as global poverty, hunger, conflict and injustice will be instantly eradicated, which would allow time to attend to far more complex and intractable problems – such as how to improve the functioning of British Universities.

The massive expansion of student numbers in recent years has placed a high demand on university resources, in terms of teaching staff, books and computer equipment, as well as for government in terms of paying for tuition fees. Universities have responded in various ways, but in almost every instance the increase in numbers has led to an increase in teaching workload, increased class sizes and reduced access for students to books and staff. The government meanwhile has responded by gradually increasing the amount that students, or their parents, are required to contribute towards first living expenses and latterly tuition costs.

The increase in the costs associated with higher education has likely put off some students from less prosperous backgrounds (though the poorest do still receive substantial assistance) or from those whose parents are unwilling to provide financial support. It also means that most students now have to undertake some form of part-time work in order to pay their bills, significantly reducing the time they have available to study.

There appears to be little obvious benefits that have accrued to society in general from this expansion, the numbers of students undertaking courses where a degree is indispensable to proficiency in their chosen career doesn’t appear to have increased in proportion with overall expansion. Instead, we have vastly more people taking humanities degrees before subsequently entering entirely unrelated professions.

Now I have no problem with that per se, in fact I have considerable respect for the idea that university can offer learning for learning sake – or more precisely, learning for the sake of improving critical thinking skills – rather than simply as an aid to national economic performance. But I think the expansion in numbers has significantly undermined that potential. Indeed, there sometimes doesn’t seem to be much learning going on at all. Equally I don’t want to be in a position of prohibiting people from choosing to go to university, or setting up insurmountable barriers. So my aim is to find a way of reducing student numbers, while enhancing the student experience and avoiding making higher education as exclusive as it was up until 20 years ago. I think that can be achieved, along with various other benefits by a fairly simple proposal.

The proposal is *drumroll* that students would not be able to register at university until at least a year (and preferably two) following the completion of A levels/further education. This period could be used for working, travelling, other avenues of study, whatever.

In terms of reducing student numbers, I think this would significantly cut down on the numbers of young people who drift rather aimlessly into university, without really considering why they were doing it. I imagine that many who had found work might decide they’d prefer to continue with their career in that field rather than return to education.

For thosewho are determined to go through higher education there are substantial benefits in delaying their entry for a while longer – not least because the admissions procedure would be dramatically simplified, and much less stressful if it was happening when students and universities alike knew their A Level results, as opposed to the current guessing game.

Secondly, aged 19 0r 20 young people would be much better placed to choose their degree scheme with reference to what they wanted to do with the rest of their life than when they were 17 or 18, when the decision currently has to be made. Furthermore, that extra maturity, experience of the world and time spent outside the classroom – whether at work or elsewhere – would mean that they entered university much better able to engage with the independent learning that higher education requires.

And even if none of that came to pass, at least they could save up a few quid beforehand.



  1. I think the problem with your solution is that statistically, the number of students who are ‘drift[ing] rather aimlessly’ into University isn’t really that high a percentage of the total. In fact, I think that the financial pressures are already a barrier to that kind of student. Those who take a Humanities degree may go into it knowing they will not gain directly related employment, but just having a degree on your CV does open some doors.

    That doesn’t make your idea a poor one, mind. I think it would do a lot of good generally to make people wait a year or two before turning up dazed and confused on the doorstep of my office. But I don’t know if it would really have a significant impact on numbers.

    What you need, I think, is more opportunity for students at A level and below to decide to do things *other* than going to University. Trade and technical school, apprenticeships, work experience posts that aren’t just a fortnight of tedious bullshit. While the degree does open doors in some areas, there are other careers that can be both fulfilling and lucrative that are under the radar of most students unless they have family working in them.

    Comment by Kalyn — October 19, 2008 @ 2:18 pm | Reply

  2. Hmm. How do you measure statistically “whether someone drifted aimlessly into University”? I certainly feel that’s what I did, as a 17 year old having been shunted along the educational system we were basically told, “next up, you send off your UCAS forms and find a university.”

    Obviously I’d have ended up at uni anyway, but I might have thought it through a bit more later on!

    As for your second point, well yes, that’s the holy grail, to make practical, vocational qualifications that aren’t seen as second class compared to HE. No-one’s managed it yet in the UK. Are there some countries that have?

    Comment by Josh — October 20, 2008 @ 6:02 pm | Reply

  3. The only way to measure it is to survey students at both A-level and in University to find out why they attended. Obviously there will be some inbuilt reporting error, but really it is basic market research. I know it’s been done for at least some student populations, as there is an article about it pinned to the notice board in the coffee room at work–if I remember in the morning, I’ll try to find out where it came from.

    As for countries that have successfully set up vocational qualifications, I honestly don’t know. The US is certainly no closer to it than the UK and may in fact be worse off because of the abhorrent state of funding for public schooling there.

    Comment by Kalyn — October 20, 2008 @ 10:09 pm | Reply

  4. I like the idea Josh – but I don’t think it would work well in the technical subjects. Take two years off learning Maths at the end of A-levels and you’ll have to re-learn the last 6 months of it.

    But for the ‘no-right-answer / essay writing / wishy-washy’ (delete as appropriate) subjects, a year or two of doing something else might well sort the wheat from the chaff. Certainly if the arts students who eventually turned up at uni were there because they wanted to be, rather than just conveyor-belted in, then the different attitude they’d have by then might dispel the image they have with science students of being lazy buggers.

    On the other hand, if barred entry to universities, many 18 year olds would probably just spend the next year in bed….

    Comment by Taff — May 13, 2009 @ 9:49 am | Reply

    • I thought A levels had been so dumbed down that technical courses were basically devoting their first years to teaching the basics from scratch. But that may be Daily Telegraph propaganda seeping through.

      Nevertheless, I think there may be a point that some people do know exactly what they want to do when they are 18 and (particularly when its a long course, eg medicine) it may be unfair to prevent them following that track. But I think that work experience opportunities would arise that would prevent them from wastng the year(s) and it might make people re-think career decisions that otherwise take 2 years of undergrad study to alter.

      I actually don’t have a collossal problem with 18 year olds spending a year in bed (though obviously I’d rather they didn’t), it’d be better than them doing it at university and then claiming to be a third of the way to a degree.

      Anyway, you dragging this post up is very relevant now when the university is planning to cut almost all its humanities adult education programmes in a spectacularly ill-advised cost-cutting exercise which could be avoided by my brilliant idea.

      Comment by Josh — May 13, 2009 @ 7:04 pm | Reply

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