Will University Swapping Work?

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.

20 Responses to “Will University Swapping Work?”

  1. This university swapping happened involuntarily when UMIST and the Victoria University of Manchester merged. UMIST physics students had to join the VUM program mid-way through their studies. Initially, their grades dropped by about 15%, mainly because the programs matched very poorly. There was some recovery later on. Based on this, I do not believe that swapping after the second year is a good idea.

    Before the merger, 4th year UMIST physics students did take some of their courses at VUM and they did well on those. So it seems to me that a partnership between universities for the final year of a physics degree can work, University swapping (even for just the post-BSc part) is far too blunt an instrument. Course sharing is much more effective.

    • telescoper Says:

      I agree. This is one of the strengths of, e.g., SEPNET in that universities can pool their advanced courses and thus deliver a more varied range of specialist courses than each could separately provide. We’re doing this in a small way in Cardiff too, by putting on some 4th-year courses jointly with Swansea.

  2. […] “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 …” (more) […]

  3. The Russell Group seem to have been quite successful in giving the impression that they are not just a self-selected club of universities whose vice-chancellors got together and decided to form a lobby group, but are somehow the First Division (in old money). Well done to them, I suppose, but a bit depressing.

    As for yesterday’s Independent Crossword, I found it much harder than usual! As if I’d remember the name in 16ac! I hadn’t heard of the phrase in 2d before, either. Perhaps you can look forward to another dictionary.

    • telescoper Says:

      You clearly don’t belong in the Russell Group of crossword solvers, but if you wait two years I might give you a dictionary.

  4. Since Lord Rees (who I still think of as merely Sir Martin — time flies) seems to base his recommendation in part on what happens at US universities, let me fill in a couple of details about the American system. I don’t know enough about the UK system to have a strong opinion about whether the proposed scheme makes sense for you, but since the argument seems to be based in part on a comparison of the two systems, some information about the US system may be helpful.

    1. Transferring between universities is pretty common in the US. There are issues with continuity of curriculum, but because it’s a fairly regular occurrence, we’re more or less used to it.

    2. It sounds to me like Lord Rees is probably talking about students who transfer from US community colleges to research universities. At least, I know that that’s a very common route in the University of California system. Community colleges in the US typically don’t offer a wide range of bachelor’s degrees. In fact, for many of them the primary degree they offer is a two-year certification known as an associates degree. At most community colleges, it would not be possible to get a bachelor’s degree in physics, for example. The college would almost certainly offer introductory physics and possibly some intermediate-level courses, but not the full set required for a degree.

    It’s possible that Lord Rees is not talking about community colleges but rather about smaller four-year colleges (in California jargon, the Cal State system as opposed to the University of California system). In that case, it’s more likely, although not certain, that a student could get a bachelor’s degree in physics from the original institution.

    3. In the US system cost is (unfortunately) a major factor. Some students who follow paths such as this have done it not because they were unqualified but because community colleges are a lot cheaper. For those students, starting at a community college and transferring to a UC is a great deal: their final degree is from a well-known university, but they didn’t have to pay the full tuition.

    4. In at least some cases, I know that smaller colleges that lose a lot of students via transfer to bigger, better-known universities do worry about how they can get “credit” for the work they put into training these students. Colleges are often judged by their graduation rates, for example, and for public colleges state funding may depend on such statistics. For community colleges, I think that they systematically track transfers to bigger universities and (rightly) tout those students as successes (not as graduates of the college, but as evidence that the college is fulfilling its mission to train these students.

    5. Ultimately, your diagnosis that this is a scheme to treat a symptom rather than the root cause is a very apt characterization of our system. It’d be much better if we made education at a top university accessible (both academically and financially) to all students with the aptitude. But treating the symptom is better than not treating the symptom. In the long term I hope we can devise a more rational system, but in the short term this is probably better than nothing. (I’m still talking here about the US system; I don’t know enough about the UK system to judge.)

    • telescoper Says:

      One thing I should have mentioned is that people do already transfer from one University to another in the UK, with the permission of both institutions, when there are personal reasons for doing so. It’s not commonplace (I can only think of a few examples in the >20 years I’ve worked in UK universities) but it does happen, and there are mechanisms for doing credit transfer. I think Lord Rees wants many more to do this.

    • The US system is so different in so many ways that concluding anything from a comparison seems rather dubious to me.

  5. Monica Grady Says:

    For many years, the Open University has operated a 2+2 scheme, whereby a student does a foundation course then 1yr of more advanced work, following which they can transfer into the second year of a conventional university (of whatever grouping). Given that we are completely open, i.e., we have no entrance requirements in terms of A levels, etc, this is a way of getting students who wouldn’t otherwise have gone to uni into the ‘elite’ universities. Of course, our great success is that most of our students prefer to stay with the OU, giving us our place at the top of the student satisfaction table!!

  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    I agree with nearly everything that Peter has written in his essay above. The main problems concerning access to `better’ universities for students from non-privileged backgrounds are caused by difficulties in schools (problems of various kinds) and with the character of A levels, not with the majority of high-quality universities.

    I too believe three-year first degrees followed by two-year masters’ degree (as in the Bologna Accord) would be preferable.

    Perhaps the noble Lord Rees might address the particular problems with access to his own rather grand institution, rather than to most of the rest of the best British universities.

    • telescoper Says:

      I agree with nearly everything that Peter has written in his essay above.

      So did you also find the Independent crossword easier than normal?

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I wrote that I agreed with nearly everything, not everything: the comment about the Independent crossword was the exception. Indeed, I have never even tried the Independent crossword.

  7. Peter’s last paragraph is what Lord Rees should be pushing. Get rid of this complicated degree structure and other needed reforms will be easier.

    Of course, I agree with Ted and Peter that the main problem is lower down. With regard to university fees keeping students away, this probably won’t change until high-profile profs make a big deal about moving to a country without university fees. (This isn’t an ideal solution, of course, since it will crowd out jobs in said countries. However, I don’t expect that many to do it, and one or two high-profile cases (“Nobel prof moves to xxx to escape university fees”) might be enough to get the ball rolling.)

  8. “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.”

    While I share your general scepticism, I don’t see this as a valid point, especially since the majority of people will be on the move for at least a few years after leaving university, probably longer than that before settling down (you’re just settling down in Sussex now). One can’t say this isn’t good for relationships etc then expect people to put their relationships on the back burner until they get a permanent job later on.

    The main problem is transferring during the same degree programme. It is much easier to transfer between degrees. A 3/2/2 system would make this easier.

  9. […] A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « Will University Swapping Work? […]

  10. I posted about the top 10 (20) universities in the Workd here


  11. Looking for best universities in uk to complete my masters in UK, I need some suggestion guys please suggest me the best and top UK Universities that provide a good job after complete master degree.

  12. “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”.”

    Interesting. About what I expected at the top, but Lancaster at #2 surprised me. Comments?

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