Who are universities for?

Who are universities for?

This is the text of my brief introductory remarks for a session discussing my co-authored book, Who are universities for?, with Karen O’Brien and Simon Marginson at the Mansfield College Public Talks series on 31st January 2020.

Often, a large part of a progressive or radical social movement involves defamiliarising a part of our society that we’ve come to take for granted. So, for instance, those who wish to abolish the monarchy might try to make you feel the strangeness of having a single family, selected only by genealogy, who control so much of the wealth and power of a nation. Marxists might try to make apparent how strange it is that we allow private ownership of the very things we need for our survival and wellbeing; they might try to illustrate that this is just one of many many ways that a society might be structured, and not some inevitable or necessary feature. Advocates of gay marriage might reveal the oddity of an institution intended to celebrate love and commitment that is restricted to only one sort of grouping that is capable of those things. In each case, the movements allow us to imagine a world structured very differently from the world we find ourselves living in.

In a way, the starting point for Who Are Universities For? is an attempt to defamiliarise the current higher education system in the UK (though what we say hopefully has relevance elsewhere too). One way to do that is to describe the sort of individual whom our current systetm best serves, and appreciate how small a group that is; another is the complement to that — to describe the sorts of individual the system currently excludes, and appreciate how many of them there are. Thinking about this will allow us to imagine a different sort of higher education system; one that is more suited to the lives we actually live.

The sort of person for whom the current university system is well designed will live a certain sort of life. They will know at exactly the right time what they would like to study and how. Aged 13, they will know whether they want to go to university and, if they do, what they want to study when they’re there; and they will select the subjects then and again at 15 to suit the degree they’d like to do. Aged 17, they’ll study for and sit their A-Level exams in good health and with a stable home life, so that their marks will correctly measure their abilities. Aged 18 or 19, they’ll start their degree and they’ll move with only minor obstacles to its conclusion three or four years later, where they will graduate successfully. In short, their young life – mid-teens to early twenties – will have a very particular shape. A shape that rather few people’s lives really have.

For us, the three authors of the book — a historian of communism and community organisations (Josie McLellan), an expert in English literature and radical pedagogy (Tom Sperlinger), and a philosopher focused on rationality and decision-making (me) — we came to see how bizarre, historically contingent, and exclusive the very structure of our current higher education system is when we designed, in 2011, and then directed, from 2013 onwards, the Foundation Year in Arts and Social Sciences at Bristol, a programme that shares some things in common with the Foundation Year at Lady Margaret Hall here in Oxford. It is a one-year, pre-undergraduate course designed to prepare students for undergraduate study in any of our degrees in the Faculty of Arts or in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law. The course has no formal entry requirements at all; admission is via a personal statement, a written assignment, and an interview; all teaching is concentrated on two days back-to-back during childcare-friendly hours to allow students to continue part-time with any employment they have; half of the course is a sort of liberal arts tour through the wide range of subjects our faculties teach, tied fairly loosely to the question, What does is mean to be human?; the other half provides study skills for the students, preparing them for writing essays, taking notes, participating in seminars, managing their time, and thinking about what they want to get out of their time at university; and if a student completes the course satisfactorily, they are guaranteed a place on a degree programme in our Faculties.

Here are some widening participation statistics for the programme just this year. Of 50 incoming students: half are men, half women; a third are over 25, and a sixth over 40; a little over half are from local postcodes, which is very unusual for Bristol; one third are from BAME groups, whereas the statistic in the arts faculty more broadly is closer to one in twenty; around a half are the first in their family to go to university, again diverging dramatically from the wider faculty average; 40% are from the low participation neighbourhoods known as POLAR 1 and 2. Over two-thirds of our students sit in three or more of the official widening participation groups; over one-third sit in four or more.

But in a lot of ways, these statistics mask a much richer and more diverse reality. Our students have included: a 70 year old woman who emigrated to the UK from Jamaica when she was 14 with no formal qualifications, trained as social worker and spent a career doing that, and decided she wanted to get a university education when she retired; a man approaching thirty who was told by his school careers service that he was suited only to an Army career, spent five years there, and wanted out; people who suffered bereavement or serious physical or mental illness during their high school career and could find no way back into the education system as they recovered in their mid-twenties; many women in their forties and fifties who had borne the vast majority of care for their children with special educational needs or disabilities growing up, and who wanted to study now that their children had left home or entered residential care; many people in their fifties and sixties for whom higher education had never been a possibility, perhaps due to family circumstances or expectations; some people whose experience of high school was demoralising, unsupportive, unhappy, who had rejected the idea of continuing with education at the end of high school but who now wanted to study. These people, and many many like them, are made to feel that their life has been the wrong shape for our higher education system; that they don’t fit. Of course, it is our higher education system that is the wrong shape; it doesn’t fit the population it exists to serve.

When we designed the Foundation Year, we had the idea of writing pen portraits of potential students, so that we had specific, detailed ideas of the people, hypothetical at that point, for whom we were designing this course. Growing up where I did in the east of Scotland, and attending a very low performing comprehensive school in an ex-mining town, lots of these portraits were inspired by friends, people I knew, people I’d grown up with. Five years later, when we came to write our book, our students on the Foundation Year provided a much richer set of pen portraits, this time not hypothetical, of people for whom to design, not a single programme this, but a whole university system. The proposals in Who Are Universities For? are our attempt to describe an entire university system shaped like the Foundation Year that would better serve the students who joined that programme.

So what might a higher education system look like that was built to fit around the lives I have described, and the many more besides them around the country? I should say at this point that there is almost nothing we propose here that isn’t being done in one way or another already in this country by further education institutions, or by the Open University, or by community universities, or by institutions overseas, or by new experimental institutions like NMiTE in Hereford. There is a danger, when academics trained and working in large wealthy research-intensive universities write about widening participation, that they erase or sideline the achievements and insights of many working in different institutions with fewer resources, but which have often been leading the charge for many years. What is new here, if anything, is our attempt to stitch these proposals together to imagine an entirely new system for the whole country.

One of the features of our current university system that it is easiest to defamiliarise is the three-year degree structure. In this model, all of your undergraduate education is taken in one intensive, all-consuming dose, usually at the end of your teenage years, or shortly thereafter. Most of us in universities think that they provide an education that is valuable in many different ways: they satisfy curiosity, nurture intellectual development, enhance understanding of various parts of the world, provide space to think openly, freely, and carefully about countless features of our world and our lives; they train their students in skills that help them in their future careers; and so on. It surely seems bizarre, then, to think that there is one privileged three-year period in a typical life of 70 or 80 years in which it is appropriate to gain these benefits, and thereafter no need.

This was always a bizarre idea, I think, but it is doubly, triply so in a world of such fast technological change that our economy will increasingly require people to reskill at various points throughout their working lives as various jobs are automated, or simply disappear. We university teachers are good; in fact, we’re very good indeed; but no-one’s good enough to provide someone with an education at 18 years old that will see them through until they’re 65 or 70.

What’s more, the three-year degree is a very daunting prospect for people whose lives are complicated, who carry commitments to dependants, who have certain mental or physical illnesses or disabilities that might flair up, who simply don’t have the self-confidence required to believe that they’ll be able to get through that three year period successfully. And for those people, the three-year degree is an enormous risk. Drop out at any point and you’re left with almost no qualifications to show for it. So, here’s our first proposal:

(1) We would make modules and not degrees the fundamental unit of academic study.

These might be taken at any time throughout your life, and you would register for individual modules, rather than whole degree courses. While people might still wish to build up to a full degree, either in one go or over many years, there would be no formal point of graduation; no point at which you would say you had finished, and gained everything a university could give you. Because there is no such end point, or there should not be.

A concomitant of the idea that university study should come all at once in a three-year burst, studied to the exclusion of all else, is that teaching is usually scheduled within standard weekday working hours, 9-5; and lectures or seminars take place weekly, making up an 8 or 10 or 12 week semester. But it’s not hard to imagine who this excludes. The traditional solution, of course, is the evening class, again taught once per week for a two or three month period. But that isn’t suitable for everyone either. So, our second proposal:

(2) We would teach our modules on a range of different schedules: on weekdays, once per week; in evenings, again once per week; in intensive weekend courses; in week-long residential teaching; as mixed distance and in-person learning; and so on.

What’s more, as Adrienne Rich urged in ‘Towards a Women-Centred University’, childcare would be freely available on campus for all students, so that parents might visit their children during lunch hours, in a break between classes, and so on. If the shape of your life involves care for a child, the university should accommodate that shape in such a way that childcare is as much integrated with study as possible.

As we change who we make our universities for, we must change also how people are admitted onto courses of study, or in our system modules. We’ve two proposals here:

(3a) The less radical is a mixed approach. For those with recent high school qualifications, we take a much more serious approach to contextual offers, tailoring offers based on more fine-grained statistical information about the relationship between high school achievement and achievement in degree programmes; for those without, we use interviews, written assignments, or diagnostic tests, just as we do on the Foundation Year.

(3b) The more radical proposal is a lottery system. In line with how French universités admit students, we would allow anyone to join basic, introductory modules, perhaps with an aptitude test for certain technical or mathematical modules; we would use a lottery to deal with oversubscription; and then we’d require a certain level of achievement on a basic module to progress to the more advanced versions.

The proposals we’ve looked at so far would surely broaden participation with higher education dramatically. People at all stages of life and with lives of dramatically different shapes would be able to study, and indeed study together. This latter is important. Too much discussion of widening participation is concerned with keeping the university very much as it is, but opening the doors wider, allowing more people to come in, as if the university is owned by the current cadre of academics, or chief administrators, or members of the governing bodies. But it is not. Or, more precisely, it should not be. It should be a public resource, owned by the public and working for the benefit of the public. That public should have a greater hand in determining its activities. Our conversation about higher education should change from assuming the university is internally shipshape, but currently not sufficiently accessible, to thinking of the positive consequences of wider participation for the health of the university. So, our fourth proposal:

(4) Those outside the university should have a greater part of play in its running, the design of its courses, its strategic direction.

You might say, of course, that this is populist; it ignores the great expertise built up within universities; expertise that should guide the teaching and research priorities of the university. And surely that expertise should play a role. And yet decades of feminist and Marxist theory, disability, gay, and trans rights activism, and critical race scholarship have revealed how deferring solely to the expertise within universities can lead to a certain parochialism and conservatism within the teaching and research they value and undertake. In each of these cases, the university’s teaching and research has improved as the power to shape agendas has been shared more and more widely. So the expertise of universities should work with the insights of those outwith them to create their courses and research agendas.

Universities are major, powerful institutions within our society. We couldn’t change them as dramatically as we hope to without changing significant other features of the country of which they are a part. We welcome those changes. One significant change would that the choice to attend further or higher education would no longer be important. For structural reasons, and because of different resources they need, it might well be that higher and further education institutions might remain separate, but as pathways through education, they need not. You could easily imagine a person like one of our Foundation Year students who trained and worked as a self-employed electrician for a number of years, moved to role in a small local company as a health and safety officer, then decided they wanted to pursue their interest in local history further, and joined the Foundation Year with an eye to a degree in that subject. On the model we’re proposing, this sort of pathway would surely be more common and more accessible. Indeed it might become something like the norm.

Our proposal would also have a significant effect on schools. They would be freed from having to keep a constant eye on university preparations. Their students would be freed from the pressure to perform in exams exactly at the time in their life where they are developing who they are going to be. And there would be fewer incentives for parents to game various parts of the system to gain advantage for their children.

There’s a lot here that seems utopian. But, as I mentioned, there isn’t a single proposal that hasn’t been tried at local versions already, in post-92 universities, in the Open University, in further education institutions, or in community education initiatives. But we won’t see large scale change until the different proposals are knitted together. It’s not much good having an evening class or part-time provision if your admissions requirements still exclude nearly everyone over 30; it’s not much good changing your admissions requirements if all you offer is a three-year full-time degree taught in one-hour slots scattered throughout a week in a way that prevents your students for continuing a career through part-time work as they study.

I hope I’ve convinced you that there is nothing inevitable about the structure of our current higher education system; that its bizarre, historically contingent features play a significant role in excluding large numbers of people from that system; and that it is ill-suited to its role. But I hope I’ve also convinced you that there is an alternative version not a million miles away that fits that role better. The key is to ask first: who are universities for? Then take your answer and build a system that fits the lives of those you wish to include.

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