Making university education fairer

As universities start the new academic year, I think it is a good time for my second post on education, which is about opening up university education to make courses accessible to more people, and a move away from individual universities making potentially life-changing decisions on who gets to do the course of their choice.

Currently we have the “top” universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, and people who go to these universities are generally seen in a better light than those who go to “lesser” universities. Many people have their applications to Oxford or Cambridge rejected, and while they can take a course at another university, there is still the perception that they’ve missed out and will now not be able to reach the level, educationally and perhaps in life generally, that they wanted. However, I think that this is an outdated and unhealthy attitude. But this is a centuries old tradition that for some reason is rarely seriously questioned.

I would argue that a degree should be considered the same wherever it comes from. Whichever university someone goes to, they should have the opportunity to reach the same academic level. This is why I would standardise degree classifications, so that a particular degree classification would be worth the same from any university. A-levels and GCSEs aren’t worth different amounts based on what school you attended, so this is just the next logical step. It does seem that at the moment, it’s actually rather unclear how to compare degrees from different universities. That there may be equivalence is clearly not enough. This equivalence needs to be official and clearly recognised by everyone. As well as this benefiting students, I don’t think potential employers would want to have to work out what a degree is worth based on some formula involving degree classification and the university that awarded it.

It is generally seen as a problem that some schools get better results than others, and much is made of the fact that some pupils get a better education and better opportunities than others, which includes the likelihood of getting into a better university. But this drive for equality seems to end once university level is reached, and this inequality seems to be more accepted at university level, for some reason. Yes, people complain that there are too few people of lower “socio-economic” backgrounds that get into Oxford and Cambridge, but there seem to be relatively few complaints that there are these exclusive universities that give better opportunities to students in the first place. This is what I would want to put a stop to.

By standardising things, there could be the concern that top students would be held back, when they have the potential to do a degree that progresses to a more advanced level over the three years. But there’s nothing to stop some universities offering a “fast-track” degree over two years, where the third year is spent at master’s level, for example. The main point is that as much as possible, all courses and qualifications should be open to all people who want to do them, regardless of how long it takes them to complete the course.

Obviously these changes cannot be made overnight. But with fairer funding and a drive to raise the standards of lower-achieving universities, the discrepancies would start to disappear over time. Also with a standardised system and universities working together, relevant lectures can be made available online. All this would mean that all students should be able to access the best material. This is an ideal time for these changes to be made with the general move to having more and more lectures, courses and other learning material available online. Physical location need no longer be a barrier to most courses and qualifications.

As it is, universities have to make potentially arbitrary decisions on who to accept based on unreliable measures such as predicted grades. They might do the best they can but it’s still not a fair system, even if it is apparently getting more transparent. There would still be a limit of how many students each university can accept, but with the inbuilt pecking order eliminated, there wouldn’t be so much competition for places at some universities over others. The load would be spread and there would be less disappointment.

Some courses may require specialist equipment (e.g. medicine and other practical sciences), so it wouldn’t always simply be a case of watching the relevant lectures and accessing materials online. This means there may still be limited places for some courses, at least in the short term. However, better equality of funding across universities would ameliorate this to some extent. Also while universities would still exist as separate entities, more cooperation at a higher level would mean that enrolling on a course at one university would allow a student access to facilities at any other university. This would include, as much as possible, specialist scientific equipment as well as the more obvious libraries and computers.

Going to university can be very expensive with accommodation and general living costs, but with more standardisation and free access to resources from other universities, students would in most cases be able to get the same level of education in the course of their choice at their local university if they cannot afford to move away or do not want to.

Some courses, of course, are only studied by a small minority of students, so it would be unrealistic to have a department for these subjects in every university. But in most cases students enrolled at other universities or studying from home would still be able to access learning materials online if they wanted to take individual units from such a course.

The overall aim for this is to make university education accessible to a greater number of people, and for the vast majority of students to be able to do the particular course that they want to, and to make the system less competitive and more cooperative.

While I think that anyone who wants to go to university should be encouraged to do so, I also think that those choosing not to go to university should not be unfairly penalised. More people have degrees than in the past, so employers can demand that applicants have degrees for jobs that would not have previously required them, as a simple, and arguably lazy, way of sifting applicants.

One possible solution to this is that employers who demand degrees from applicants could be required to demonstrate why the job needs a graduate and have to apply for permission, or they would not be permitted to discriminate on these grounds. Generally this permission would be granted when a specific degree is required with specific knowledge or skills acquired from it. Many people are expected to go to university for three years to earn a qualification for jobs that they would be perfectly capable of doing without a degree, purely because employers want a quick way to cut down the applicants. I think people should be encouraged to go to university for the right reasons – for example, because they simply want to learn, or because they will later need the actual knowledge gained rather than the piece of paper.

This is similar to what I have previously argued with GCSEs. In many cases employers require applicants to have a certain number of GCSEs because they are the arbitrary tokens of the workplace, not because the knowledge from them is required.

A possible alternative to this suggestion is for employers that demand degrees from their applicants to be forced to contribute towards the costs of higher education, so that they are not parasitic on it. This would make them think about whether it is really necessary. Either suggestion could help put and end to the generic graduate job.

It would also help to have a more informative classification system for degrees. The terminology of first, upper second, lower second and third seems rather arbitrary anyway, but more importantly, as argued here and here, a simple, single classification is too crude. It would help if more information was used on the certificate, including marks for specific courses, so that the difference between getting an overall average of 59.9% and 60% (generally the border between a lower and upper second) wouldn’t make so much difference to someone’s life chances. University degrees are complex and are more than just currency in the job market, so I think this should be reflected in the award. Also by being given more information than a simple grade, potential employers would be forced to make a more considered assessment of applicants.

In conclusion, it’s time we had a fairer and more modern system of university education. It needs to be less exclusive, less competitive, and have a grading system that fully reflects the complexity of a degree course.

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