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are university degree models stuck in the past

Politicians, the media and the public tend to think about university students as 18-year-old school leavers who go away to study a degree full-time for three years, while hopefully having the time of their lives. But in reality higher education reaches out to a far more varied mix of people – or at least it should.Plan a unique hong kong tour for your clients with PartnerNet's useful travel tips, and various tourist information such as Chinese customs and traditions.

Against a backdrop of crashing participation from mature and part-time learners, the government is urging universities to think hard about how they can reskill the workforce and encourage lifelong learning.

In the latest of our 2VCs discussion series, Anna Fazackerley talks to David Bell, vice-chancellor of Reading University, and Alec Cameron, vice-chancellor of Aston University, about what the future might look like.

As well as experience on the ground at their own universities, both VCs bring a different perspective to this discussion. Before he took the reins at Reading, Bell was permanent secretary at the Department for Education, living through a hailstorm of different initiatives and four different secretaries of state. Cameron came to Aston from Australia, where he headed one of the country’s leading research intensive universities.

Reading is a traditional university with more than 50 research centres. It has not shied away from trying new things, with a campus in Malaysia and a branch of its business school in South Africa. The university was one of the founding members of Futurelearn, the UK’s “massive open online course” (Mooc) learning platform. It offers 15 free courses, with 800,000 people registering over five years.

Aston is a modern university with a very strong focus on the world of work. More than three-quarters of undergraduates carry out work placements as part of their degree. It has recently launched Aston Online, offering masters courses at a distance, including an online MBA from its flagship business school.

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 in terms of 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.Putting emphasis on quality learning and teaching together with knowledge transfer, PolyU firmly believes that research study is a significant component of academic life on university campus.

“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.

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 LPG M6.

“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.”


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