Posted by: Gillian | August 3, 2009

Willis Report on UK universities

Reading the UK press in the last few days, you could be forgiven for thinking UK higher education is poor.  That is nonsense as the author of the report causing all the fuss clearly states.  UK universities still offer world-class and often world-leading education – but that does not remain the case if the system stays the same while the world moves on.  Adapting to the changing face of higher education is one of the aims of the far-from-snappily titled: House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Students and Universities Eleventh Report of Session 2008–09 Not surprisingly, it is being termed ‘the Willis report’ after the name of the committee Chairman. In my view the report has two real strengths and several weaknesses.

The first strength lies in the call for greater transparency about what universities offer.  The main example given is that of a student who needed to know when classes would be so she could organise childcare.  This is a straighforward example of the type of issue that should be dealt with if universities follow good marketing governance – but that is not to say that it is easy.  Stating who will be available when to teach what about a year in advance and also stating that there will be sufficient students for the class to run is definitely more art than science – but there is no reason why universities cannot make a general statement of patterns of hours and commit to set class times one month before the start of term.  With the “traditional 18-21 year old student” now being in the minority, clarity about the practical side of of courses would be welcomed by very many and I’m far from convinced that the problem is unique to the UK.

The second strength is linked to the previous example: it is a call for a fairer deal for part-time students who pay more for their programmes because they pay per enrolled year.  The funding system for UK-resident part-timers is also very poor compared to that for full-time students.

The three key weaknesses of the report are, to my mind, the:

  1. Explicit refusal to engage with the issues of international and Master students which, given the considerable increase in the proportion of both and the strategic importance of both, is odd
  2. The call for a national US-style credit-transfer system that does not address the important educational or practical financial reasons why this has not already been adopted
  3. The assumption that people in any country (including the US) give equal weight to the same award (e.g. ‘first-class honours’) from two different universities.  If that were true, the Ivy-league would not charge a premium, the Grandes Ecoles in France would be no more sought after than the nearest city university and the ‘Shanghai list’ would be unnecessary.

Yes, universities are changing.  Yes, some are better than others at research or teaching or marketing or opening doors.  No, qualifications are not ‘the same’: how can they be if the academic outcomes of the programmes are intended to be different?  Also, despite the Bologna Process, bachelors,  masters and doctoral degrees are not ‘the same’ from one country to another.

So, in summary, if you are coming to the UK to study, ignore the noise and see the report as what it is: another voice joining with the very many practitioners already working to make all of UK higher education excel.

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