It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of transformation, it was the age of employability, it was the epoch of knowledge, it was the epoch of skills, it was the season of autonomy, it was the season of the Office for Students, it was the spring of widening participation, it was the winter of the graduate premium, young people had everything before them, they had nothing before them – all right, perhaps I’m being a little melodramatic. But reflecting on two very different conferences on the purpose of higher education in the last two weeks of April, it is hard not to be reminded of Dickens’s great opening lines.
Maybe it’s because it’s New Year and the traditional time for existential angst. Maybe it’s because education and skills policy are arguably in a greater state of flux than at any time since the earlier 1990’s. Or maybe it’s because of the ever increasing costs associated with tertiary education coupled with diminishing certainty of its benefits. But whatever the reason, questions about the purpose of higher education abound. “What is a university education and where is it going?” was discussed by the great and the good at UCL’s IOE last week (11 Jan), and we will be asking the same fundamental questions at a panel discussion at my own institution in a few weeks’ time. “You are thinking about not going to university – congratulations! You have just proved that you can think differently” states the notgoingtouni.co.uk website, as quiet-voiced elders in careers departments and family homes everywhere look on aghast.
I attended that most oxymoronic of events last week - a useful conference - on the subject of the National Student Survey. It was useful because it provided the opportunity to hear from several horses' mouths how they handled this annual steeplechase event. The most interesting contribution came from the most successful. I won't embarrass them by mentioning their name, but suffice it to say the form book discloses a phenomenal track record. The alleged secret of their success was instructive, though hardly rocket science. It boiled down to investment in the product - specifically the teaching - the correlation between satisfaction with which and overall satisfaction rates was the closest metric. Essentially the message was - you can invest in other stuff all you like, but get the classroom experience wrong, and nothing else matters.
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