Too many university students?

Last night on BBC Radio 4 there was a programme about whether or not the UK has too many university students. I don’t remember quite who was on the panel, but it included Sally Hunt from the University and College Union (UCU) and the vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, the UK’s only private university.

I found it fairly interesting, although my 5 year old son had decided to tidy the kitchen and kept interrupting me to ask for help, so I didn’t hear as much as I would have liked. The vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham kept promoting – rather predictably – the idea that there should be more of a free market approach to Universities in the UK. I don’t really agree with this, but since I’m trying to keep this post shorter than normal, I won’t go into this here.

What I did generally agree with is that the real issue is not whether or not there are too many students in the UK, but whether or not they are getting an appropriate University education. One of the main views on the programme seemed to be that not enough students were taking science degrees. This may well be true, but the problem in my view is subtler. It seems to me that UK universities have not structured their degrees to be appropriate to the current student intake. In most science degrees it appears that students are assumed to be doing a degree that will ultimately allow them to basically be professional scientists (i.e., most students start off doing Honours degrees or Masters degrees and a Bachelor’s degree is really a failed Honours degree).

It would seem much more reasonable – in my view – to have more granularity in the system, allowing students to graduate at various stages with various different degrees. This isn’t meant to penalise any students, but simply to be more honest about different students’s abilities and skills and to then design the degree structure appropriately. This would optimise the amount of time students spend at university and also allow employers to have a much better idea of potential employees’ actual strengths and skills.

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