Higher education is facing a fiendish whirlwind of a triple whammy

Heard someone at St Andrews describe the changes undergone by higher education as “cyclonic”: for many in the sector that is a pretty mild and dispassionate word. It’s a fiendish whirlwind of a triple whammy: the imposition of £9000 fees from 2012, the cessation of the government support for the humanities and the removal of the numbers cap on universities whose offers are typically AAB or above. The universities’ landscape will change dramatically – as will students’ and parents’ views of the university experience. In addition, universities are caught in a bind: needing to ensure that their academics commit the necessary time to research whilst having to meet the increasing expectations of students that they are going to be well taught.

Consider the contrast and similarities with schools. Typically a university academic would expect to cut working time three ways: a third on teaching, research and admin respectively. No school would stomach this. Yet the universities are already barely meeting the expectations of students with regard to the teaching they offer. Useful recent research sheds light here: Populus interviewed 1,000 final year undergraduates, all at Russell Group and 1994 universities in May this year. Half those interviewed had been at UK maintained sector schools and half had attended UK independent schools. It was felt that:

“the quality of the teaching, the support on offer and particularly the feedback given for assessments were all less impressive at university. This difference was most keenly felt by those students who had been to an independent school, with the feeling that the teaching and support on offer at university had failed to meet their expectations and that their schooling had been superior.”

Nearly three quarters of former independent school pupils said that their schooling had been very good, compared to 45% from the maintained sector. With over one in five undergraduates already feeling fairly or very unhappy with the value for money of their £3000 fees, the likelihood is very high that the feelings of their successors, paying £9000 a year, will be equal or exceed the 58% who say that they would be fairly or very unhappy with the value for money if they were paying the higher fee. I suspect that universities are only just beginning to realise how significant the change will be in the attitudes of the next generation of students to their university education: students and teachers will view their universities in a way familiar to those of us in the independent sector. Forget the fact that universities are not private bodies – to the paying customer they will seem like it and understandably the value for money and accountability question will surface repeatedly. Universities will need to pay much greater attention to how they teach and to the area of weakness highlighted in the HMC-Populus survey and in so many student satisfaction surveys – the quality of feedback. It will make a great deal of sense for universities to work closely with schools – not only on how there can be better continuity between school and university curricula but also through sharing expertise on what makes for good teaching, support and feedback. This big shock to the university system might present an unusual opportunity for the two sectors to work more fruitfully together.