New year heralds a time of change; a chance to cast off the old and usher in the new, and this seems to be the case for higher education.
In her suggested shake up of the sector, Open University council member Mary Curnock Cook recommends overhauling the traditional three-year degree to make it more relevant, useful, cost-effective and fairer for all, and it’s certainly food for thought.
We know that a degree isn’t just an education: it’s a rite of passage, with young people leaving home for the first time, making friends and standing on their own two feet.
Their parents might regale them with tales of their own carefree student days but times have changed. The cost of tuition fees, rent and day-to-day living means this can be an expensive journey of self-discovery that leaves many people knee-deep in debt before they’ve even started employment. And employment is far from guaranteed.
I’m in favour of the decision to "bake high quality careers education into all degrees". This is an essential to me.
Awareness of real life and what they’re working towards, will help students, who may be drifting aimlessly through lectures, make better decisions. It could help them focus on the reality of needing to earn a living and what they need to do if they want to earn more.
With record numbers of 18 year olds being accepted to university, it’s foolish to think a degree stands you out from the crowd. It’s the norm nowadays.
There are too many meaningless degrees. Teenagers are shelling out thousands to graduate from courses that give them little chance of a well-paid job.
This is so concerning, that proposals published in the new year will see school leavers with 3Ds or less at A Level refused a student loan to fund a degree and instead be offered financial help with cheaper vocational courses.
It sounds harsh and some people will undoubtedly be upset, but it’s the right decision in the long run. Student loan providers surely have a responsibility to protect young people from pointless debt.
The subject of mature students isn’t one on which I’m so clear cut. Curnock Cook recommends that financial incentives be extended to older students. This means making monetary support and repayment terms more generous to people armed with experience of life and work, who have made a conscious decision to return to study.
This could work, in principle. I definitely welcome more help with subjects such as law or medicine, which have a real need in the work place and carry a higher salary. But I don’t see why a 35-year-old should be subsidised to study Media Studies while a younger person isn’t. Also, let’s not forget, universities need the fees from the ‘lower-level’ subjects to keep them functioning. There needs to be balance on both sides – to benefit student and institution.
Maybe the answer lies in increasing funding for work placements. Putting less money into the classroom and more into the workspace. That way, more people are ready to start work and employers are ready to employ them.
After all, if the higher education sector is standing up and listening, employers must do the same. These are not mutually exclusive areas.
Getting a degree isn’t about having letters after your name, it’s about kickstarting a well-paid career that makes a contribution to society. Employer-focused incentives, such as salary sacrifice and study leave would mean older people, who are already valued in the workforce, could go to uni to boost their skill set, and pay for it with their salary.
It also means 18 year olds, who don’t know what to do, can leave it a few years before deciding to study. Higher education is usually seen as something young people do, yet there are many positives to it being done later in life.
One suggestion that I’d like to make is reducing the three-year degree to eighteen months. It would be far less expensive and students could be out in the workforce quicker, with less debt, which would have a knock-on effect on employment figures and more people buying homes.
It would, of course, also mean more study and less downtime, so it wouldn’t be popular with everyone, but holiday could still be factored in, just not months of it. If it was on the table, I think many young people would take it up.
I welcome Curnock Cook’s recommendations and invite other suggestions too. Just as the pension was overhauled recently as people live longer, the entry into work has to be amended to move with the changing times.
I’m interested to see what 2019 will bring for those in higher education.
Stephen Spriggs, Managing Director, William Clarence Education
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