Archive for October 21, 2012

Will University Swapping Work?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on October 21, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday’s crossword having been more straightforward than usual, I found myself with time to peruse the Independent newspaper at my leisure. While doing so I came across a little item describing a plan suggested by Lord Rees that students from “disadvantaged backgrounds” should be allowed to swap universities after two years of a three-year degree and transfer to a Russell group institution. Apparently this idea is based on a scheme that runs “successfully” in the University of California.

The purported aim of this is to give “a second chance” to students who didn’t do well enough at A-level to get into an “elite” university – which is laudable – but it doesn’t deal with the underlying problem, namely that our pre-university education system is a mess, for two reasons.  First, students can have the misfortune to attend a school where certain subjects are taught badly or not at all. This is a particular problem in my own field, physics. Second, the A-level examinations on which most institutions base their entry criteria do not provide a reasonable assessment of a candidate’s suitability for university study.

Because of these problems many students either don’t apply to top universities or fail to make the grades required. Such universities are reluctant to drop their grades to make special allowance because they would then get penalised in the league tables –  a high entry requirement at A-level is perceived to be a mark of quality. I’m convinced that this is a major flaw in the system. Some of the very best students I’ve had the pleasure to work with at Cardiff, for example, came in at a time when our recruitment team was struggling to meet its quota,  with modest A-level scores that would not normally have been high enough to get in. I worry a great deal about how many more talented young people there are out there who lacked that bit of luck and missed out entirely.

Lord Rees is correct in saying that it will take a very long time to fix the pre-university education system, and his proposal is an attempt to provide a sticking-plaster solution later on. If you like, it’s an admission of defeat. Elite universities will be allowed to carry on using inappropriate criteria to reject talented students applying to join the first year of a degree, but will be allowed to cherry-pick the best performers from other institutions into Year 3.

Although I think this proposal contains some good ingredients, there are several things about it that worry me. I don’t know how many students will want to move after two years in the first place. They will have made friends, formed relationships, and generally settled in at their original university and to up sticks in order to travel to another university for their final year would be very disruptive. Steps would have to be taken to ensure continuity of curriculum too. And what about the financial and other implications for the original institution, which would have to be prepared to lose an indeterminate number of its best students at the end of Year 2, with consequent impact on the quality of its graduating class?

I don’t think it’s fair for the so-called “elite” to exploit the hard work put in by other departments and institutions in order to mask its own failure to recruit appropriately. The only fair solution is to fix the university admission system, which means fixing our  broken A-levels.

And another thing. I’m shortly moving from Cardiff (which is a member of the Russell group) to Sussex (which isn’t).  Look at the league tables for Physics and tell me which one should be regarded as “elite”. Should students choose their University on the basis of which one provides the best education, or on the basis that it provides membership of a prestigious club?

On balance, I don’t think this scheme is workable in the way suggested. There is a variant, however, which I think is more promising. I think we should scrap the current confused system of 4-year undergraduate degrees (MPhys, MSci, etc) and adopt a standard system of 3-year Bachelors degrees. The next level of degree should be standalone postgraduate Masters. I’d prefer these to be two years, actually, but that’s not essential to this argument. Students could then transfer after their Bachelors’ degree into an “elite” university for their Masters if they so wish.

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