Posted by: Gillian | December 5, 2008

New times, new courses, new students, new fees

The changing face of higher education is so well reported that recently I even heard the term  ‘massification’ being used by chattering assistants in the local DIY store.  They were happily discussing the children of friends and families who were taking some classes at home on their computers and finding odd jobs to pay their bills.  So, if the man and woman in the DIY store can understand that universities have changed, how can it be denied within higher education itself?  What should prospective students expect?

Barry Dahl has already started a discussion on the need for tuition fees and the ‘total cost of education’ to be brought into the twenty first century.  Separate fees for ‘technology’ for anyone attending a university that has an email address (that may be every university in the world by now?) just deny the impact of the internet as an aid to research, peer review, outreach programmes and the whole world of learning.  That is not to say that every professor or student has to use all aspects of the learning technologies with which many campuses now bristle, but technology is as much a part of mainstream education as professors and assessments.  As a prospective student, if a university were to charge for ‘technology’, I would want to look very closely at what else it considered unnecessary for education and what other charges might appear.

A second issue arose when a question was posted on a messageboard asking if it was possible to do a Masters degree without having done a Bachelors if one had relevant experience.  A Dean responded that no reputable establishment would allow such a thing.  Oh dear.  In best academic tradition, I and others respectfully but strongly disagree.  Diploma mills must, of course, be avoided but APEL or Recognition of Prior (Education) and Learning has been around in formal terms for about three decades.  If you want to do a Masters degree, or even a PhD, and are fairly certain you ‘know’ just as much as those who already have the usual formal entry qualifications, then it is worth exploring your options.  In broad terms that could spark a fierce debate, academic knowledge and academic writing are not the same as applied knowledge and writing for work purposes so the university or college will want evidence of what you know, how you write, what sort of research you have done.  If you find a programme you like and can state clearly why you would choose that rather than another, then it is always worth contacting the admissions office and asking what entry routes are open to you.  You may be asked for a portfolio of evidence in a set format or you may be invited to a panel interview – or both.  If accepted, you may then be required to take a pre-programme course to make sure your study skills are of a sufficient level to be able to discuss and debate with other, more traditionally educated students.  The fact that such preparation courses exist proves that there are non-traditional routes to postgraduate education and the existence of one at a university of your choice is also a good sign as it means they take such students seriously.  Even better, some of those who enter the preparation course should not be allowed to continue and should not be expected to pay for the main programme.

A third issue, and the final one for this post, came up in discussion with a young person who wanted to go back to his former university to take one course as he realised it would be perfect for the job he finds himself in four years after graduating.  Normally, the course is one of the options for students in their final undergraduate year.  As there was no pricing structure for single undergraduate courses, he divided the cost of the undergraduate programme by the number of courses and offered that but was refused.  It was a good try and worth emulating.  The reasons for refusal could be many (including the course being full or pre-requisites not being met) but it raised the question of individual course pricing.  Programme proportional pricing in traditional universities is likely to be far too crude a measure for specialist courses as their class sizes are often small, those with the knowledge to teach them likely to be more rare and costs will therefore be much higher than for the compulsory three-hundred-to-a-class entry year course.  As a learner you can try to obtain ‘auditor’ entry to specialist courses and will usually pay a modest fee but have no rights to ask questions or be assessed. Another option is to look for the same course from a  distance or online provider as their cost structures are different and proportional pricing, or something very near it, is often offered because students are expected to sign up and pay for one or two courses at a time.

Times have changed and some universities have adapted faster than others to the needs of part-time and returning learners.  If you cannot see what you want in a prospectus, it is worth asking.  Universities will need to protect their standards (and you would want them to) but by asking you may help them find a route to a wider market and everyone wins.

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