Saturday, 11 December 2010

Bottom-up tuition

I know from my own time at university, undergraduates were expected to study five chosen units within their degree area in each of the three years to gain a qualification. The units and their content varied between subjects - and no doubt universities - but in general, each of those five units was taught to students through two one hour lectures and an hours tutorial (a group of around 8 students meeting a tutor) each week. That's 15 hours of formal tuition - well under half of a normal 40 hour working week. And I have certainly come across courses with considerably less tuition time. Its true we were expected to produce a number of essays and took exams at the end of each year, but managing our time and the way it was used was left entirely up to students. But then of course, our three years at university was free. Full grants covered both tuition fees and modest accommodation - usually something resembling a squat - and we were grateful. I never heard of any complaint throughout the time I was there. How things will change.

If students are to directly repay up to £9000 for each year of tuition they receive, they will certainly be demanding value for money. Universities will need to respond. Firstly through a range of more flexible degree courses designed to suit the lives of their learners - not university lecturers. From distance learning, to two year intensive timetables without the usual 20 weeks of holiday, universities will need to offer students what suits them if they are to attract the students to pay for undergraduate studies.

Secondly, within those courses universities will need to offer a level of content that the Facebook generation find both fulfilling and stretching. £9000 should buy you an extensive and highly personal curriculum combining lectures (from senior Professors rather than PhD students obviously) with at least half an hour of open Q & A at the end, at least some 1-2-1 tutorials, personal tutors aimed at matching time management with the universities resources - libraries, archives, laboratories etc - as much as general pastoral care, regularly organised presentations by students to peer groups after research work into specific areas of deeper study within courses, and perhaps even multi-disciplined (across faculty) weekly discussions and debates undertaken by student groups looking at academic issues from differing perspectives. They might even move to the American system of grade point averages whereby grades for each individual assignment throughout the year contribute to the student's overall mark. This ensures both efficient time management and consistent effort throughout the year - not the ubiquitous eight months of alcoholic haze followed by  four weeks of intense revision for an exam.

As students remain content to demonstrate about their having to repay up to £9000 of tuition fees, universities have time to consider the implications. Sometime soon, universities are going to have to start thinking seriously about what that might mean.