David Willetts is right to be talking about the need for radical change in universities. Many people in the sector seem to be wedded to the idea that nothing much needs to alter in our “world class” higher education system except that we should get more money from either the government (HEFCE funding) or the student (higher fees).
But much more needs to change. University education in the UK still operates on a mediaeval calendar, with long breaks for Christian religious festivals and the need to get the harvest in: as a consequence students see staff for only around half the year, and buildings lie substantially idle for the rest of the time. An undergraduate degree takes three or four years to complete, and its quality is not directly tested or monitored. A disturbingly high proportion of graduates – saddled with substantial debt – either cannot get work or are underemployed in jobs which twenty years ago could have been done by people with A levels.
Heavily-unionised staff largely dictate their own work patterns, including considerable amounts of time on esoteric research. A big issue on campus this year has been outrage against the view that research might partly be judged on its impact on the outside world, away from the cosy clubbiness of peer review. Contact with students is minimised in the name of “independent learning”, while the teaching that takes place is often poor and its method of delivery has not changed to reflect a world where students are almost continuously online in their personal lives.
Universities do not compete for domestic students over price or over the format and quality of their delivery. Instead they try to manipulate the inadequate league tables organised by the quality press. If you have a reasonable grasp of the mechanics involved, it is possible to engineer higher positions. Or simply lucky features of your student intake may bias the indicators used. Thus in the recent Guardian league tables the University of Chichester appears to be doing better than the University of Manchester, while University College Falmouth has a more impressive performance than Reading or Essex.
Across the sector an unhealthy dependence on overseas students has grown up. Without these students, many more universities would be in serious financial straits. Yet there are serious issues about the quality of students admitted, and about the quality of experience which they are offered. Many staff regard the notion of the student as a consumer, with the rights which this entails, as heresy. Yet without them, the still fairly comfortable lives of academics could not be sustained.