Universities need to be more flexible
28 Nov 2008 The Guardian
US universities are pointing the way
Part-time students need universities to be flexible. But most of all, they deserve the same access to grants and loans as full-time students, says Mike Baker
Why are British universities so slow to change? For years, we have been promised reforms on degree classification, post-qualification admissions and the anomalous position of part-time students. Little has happened. Now comes a further raft of suggested reforms, published in a series of discussion papers last week as part of the government's "debate on the future of higher education". But is this just more prevarication?
That British universities do not always serve their students well was brought home to me by my daughter's experience last year, when she spent a year in the US at the University of Virginia.
To take a small but symbolic example of the greater flexibility of US universities, the libraries were open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. By contrast, when I was a part-time postgraduate student in the UK recently, the library was hard to access for working people. Classes started early in the evening, leaving no time to get to the library beforehand and then, just as classes finished, the library closed for the night.
In the US, my daughter's fellow students could pack in extra credits if they wished to get through their degree more quickly or, if they needed a part-time job, they could take fewer credits and stretch out their studies. Equally, they could stay on for an extra summer semester if they wished. This flexibility is not generally available here.
Many of her fellow American undergraduates arrived at the university from community college, transferring in their course credits. The equivalent move over here, from a degree-level course at an FE college to a top university, has long been talked about but remains rare and difficult.
In the US, my daughter received an overall grade point average, a precise and differentiated classification system. In the imprecise UK system, too much hinges on which side of the 2:1 and 2:2 boundary you fall. Our universities also seem reluctant to change admissions. Why, for example, do Oxford and Cambridge continue to have a different applications deadline from everyone else? If they are serious about widening participation, why not move into line with the general Ucas deadline?
Independent schools dominate the early applications to universities; they clearly think it gives their pupils an edge. Yet universities continue to start processing applications as they come in even though, as this year, funding decisions may come late in the cycle, forcing departments to reduce their planned intake after offers have been made.
The worst foot-dragging has been on post-qualification admissions, recommended as fairer by the Schwarz review back in 2004. The government seemed to agree, and set up the Wilson review to implement admissions based on actual rather than predicted A-level results. Yet all we have so far is the minor reform of the "adjustment period" of five days when applicants who did better than expected can seek another place without jeopardising the offer they hold. In reality, there are few places left on popular courses by this late stage.
Finally, when will part-time students be treated as equal citizens? Forty per cent of students are part-time. Among postgraduates, part-timers are the majority. As they juggle work and family commitments, they need universities to be flexible about classes, lectures and library opening times. But most of all, they deserve the same access to grants and loans as full-time students.
The 2009 review of student finance is rapidly approaching. While the focus will be on the cap on fees, just as important will be what happens over the false distinction between full- and part-time students.
With difficult financial and demographic challenges ahead, reform is needed. It is time to stop issuing discussion papers and start changing things.