Juan Ramon Gomis is well known for this love of walking in the mountains, travelling in Europe and looking at flowers, but he is also a former academic, who has very strong views on the future of higher education. In this piece, he reflects on the shape of the human experience in the UK. I look back on my time in education and think that perhaps we have lost our way. It should be hard to get into a university. We need to make it hard. We need to make it a prize worth winning. We need to make the university experience that both transforms lives, open minds and makes economically useful citizens. If we are to subsidise a proportion of our youth for the privilege of another three or four years of education, while the rest are left to make their way and if this three year experience is something we will value as a society and invest in for our future well being, then we need to make the experience mean something and count for something in every university and for every student.
The key term or semester at university today is the first one. Students who have chosen courses at random find out if they have made the right choice. Keen students find out if there is a step up from A level to undergraduate – often they find there is less formal work. Our expectations of them tend to determine the performance of the marginal students and they can go either way in this period. Some places concentrate their best teachers in the first semester to try to lock them in. Others try to compensate with skills heavy sessions, to begin with, to try and bring everyone up to a basic level of competence. But there is the problem of the census date. In a day in December, the number of students and therefore the fee income for the coming year is fixed. There are strong arguments in terms of widening access for the first semester to be a welcoming one. There is also institutional pressure to ensure there are enough bums on seats come December to ensure funding levels. In an era of public expenditure cuts, this pressure will become greater. It does the students no service at all to keep them in place by gentle introduction or by starting university life-giving students the idea that little more than turning up is expected of them. Moreover, many fail and drop out of losing fees.
If the first semester was made a mutually rewarding experience of discovery between the student and the university, then perhaps students would find their disciplines, more would leave knowing that university or a particular degree or institution was not for them and academics would have the opportunity to show students what was expected of them.
It could work like this. Students would not be charged for their first semester at university. Courses would be introductory with a major subject and two minors in different areas. At the end of the term, there would be a comprehensive exam across the three subject areas. If the students passed they would begin their degree proper. If they failed they would leave. They could then choose to major in any one of the three subject areas. Fee levels in subsequent terms would be higher to cover the cost of the first term. The census for fees would take place after the results of the comprehensives were published and therefore be based on real student numbers. Both students and colleges would have the opportunity to try each other out. The ethos of work and the sense of achievement would be established from the outset.
This might not work in every country in Europe or North America, but it would allow students to make better choices and universities to fill their halls with people who wanted to be there, studying subjects they wanted to study, at institutions they wanted to beat and at fees that they could afford. Of course, this would not address the issue of massive student debt but that is another issue. The core to solving that issue is that it should not be as hard as it is to pay that debt down. I am not suggesting that higher education, once the students have made the right choice, should be free. People should be made to pay, but the student’s loan contribution from parents should be fully tax deductible, to make it that little bit easier than it is at the moment. All parents want what is best for their children in life, that is true and it should be the job of the parent to provide for the child. But perhaps, it could be just a little bit easier.