Education: Going higher and further

by
20 September 2019

Church universities should consider a move into further education, John Gay suggests

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IN A time of political turmoil, it is risky writing articles even a few days before publication. At the start of this month, Jo Johnson resigned after six weeks as Universities Minister — the fourth to go since 2015. It was his second time in the post, and the same goes for Chris Skidmore, who took over last week: he held the post for eight months to July this year, making him Jo Johnson’s predecessor and his successor.

There are still a few certainties within education, however, one being the shift in attention and resourcing away from higher education to further education. While 50 per cent of 18-year-olds are attending universities, 50 per cent are not. Traditionally, the latter have been the poor relations, and further-education (FE) colleges have been held in scant regard, running courses for a clientele once described as “the metal bashers and the hair colourers”. Yet high-quality technical and vocational courses are essential to sustain the economy.

The Church of England has already aligned itself with the need to develop further education, and the Archbishops’ Council’s education priorities for 2019 include “increasing the Church’s engagement in the FE sphere.”

In an interview in the Church Times (Feature, 8 June 2018), the lead bishop for further and higher education, the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Tim Dakin, said that the Church must see how it could help to redress the imbalance between higher and further education, and engage with further education institutions. He suggested that sponsoring a strategic locally significant FE college would be one practical signal of commitment.

He expanded this in his House of Lords speech during the education debate on 2 July: “It is crucial to recognise the central value of further education as an essential public good in itself. . .

“Our further- and higher-education sector must not only support the increasing number of 18-year-olds wishing to study at university, but be adaptable enough to meet the needs of a society demanding reskilled adult workers. It is crucial that further-education colleges . . . receive a long-term increase in funding.”

 

SOME movement into further education would accord well with the Church’s long-standing educational mission to provide for the less advantaged. Sponsoring an existing FE college would be one route.

Another would be for one or more of the existing church universities to collaborate with an FE college, possibly even merging with it to form a single tertiary institution, especially as the clear-cut divide between higher and further education is becoming increasingly inappropriate.

But might such a step not be seen as institutional downgrading, just at a time when the church universities are struggling to compete within their own sector? But all is not well within higher education, especially outside of the Russell Group and other more prestigious universities.

Last year, many of the lower-ranking universities went through a retooling process. Staff were shed from subjects which were under-recruiting, and from areas such as research, which were less focused on teaching. Furthermore, downsizing to balance the budget had to be sufficiently drastic to take account of the need to appoint new staff in new and more popular subjects.

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Some universities may well be deciding to focus even more on teaching and scholarship, at the expense of research. In its 2019 Universities Guide, The Guardian ranked universities on the factors that it considered most important to students, such as how much they will benefit from the teaching, whether they liked the university and the subject, and their chances of getting a good job. “It does not include research scores, because these are of limited relevance to students.”

In a survey of their views in January, vice-chancellors expressed concern about the outcomes of the competitive environment forced on universities, including “reduced entry standards and grade inflation, the rise of unconditional offers, increased class sizes, poor experiences for some students, falling enrolments for less prestigious institutions and a reluctance to collaborate with local competitors.”

This month, a new Intake of students will arrive, full of expectation and hope — along with their cheques, for they are now customers buying university services. While the more prestigious universities will be confident about filling all their places, the so-called lower-tariff ones will be anxiously hoping that they have attracted enough new students to balance their books.

Several may not have done so, and will be concerned whether the threats to allow such universities to go to the wall will be realised. For a church university, whether or not it is in this group, this could be a good time to pursue the further-education option.

The Revd Dr John Gay is an Honorary Research Fellow in Education at the University of Oxford, and a Visiting Professor of the University of Winchester.

 

Inflation and coercion 

INCREASINGLY, universities are acting like businesses. The lifting of the student-numbers control in 2015 meant that universities could recruit as many students as they wished.

Not only are more students going to university, but a much higher proportion of them are being awarded first-class degrees. In 1970, in the UK, 51,000 students obtained Bachelor’s degrees, whereas by last year this number had increased eightfold to 420,000.

Furthermore, in 1970, only seven per cent of these students — a mere 3500 — gained first-class degrees, whereas, last year, 118,000 (28 per cent) firsts were awarded.

Offering a high proportion of firsts is one way of attracting students, but it is hard to argue that this increase in firsts is proportional to improving standards. The resultant devaluation of undergraduate degrees means that Master’s or doctoral degrees are increasingly needed if a student is to stand out from the crowd. Employers have become sceptical about the worth of many first degrees.

There has also been controversy about the unconditional offers made to students before they take their A levels. Frequently, these offers are not unconditional, as students have to pledge that they will make that university their first choice, and not look anywhere else. One unintended consequence of this has been that students can ease up on their A levels, resulting in a loss of work ethic which is carried over into their university career.

Some universities, such as Chichester, have refused to offer unconditional places, and pressure from the Office of Students is likely to dampen the practice. There is also a move to delay the making of offers until A-level results are known.


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