We are beyond revamping the current university model. We need a radical new model instead.

The government is determined to use competition to increase university quality, with Jo Johnson, minister for universities, stating that more competition will be central to their “efforts to drive up standards” and provide more “value for money”. Yet many of the core problems facing universities stem not from a lack of market-driven policies but from the fact that the fundamental structure of universities has remained static for a millenium. Here we look at some of the challenges facing our universities, and how a radical new model could be the solution.

Student learning

The most obvious question to begin with is whether or not university students are learning anything. While there has been little research on student learning gains in the UK, data from across the Atlantic is quite concerning. The 2011 book Academically Adrift garnered huge media attention when it revealed that around 45% of US university students showed effectively no gain between first and second year when it came to critical thinking, complex reasoning or written communication skills, with 36% of students demonstrating no significant improvement after four years. In addition, many university students are not improving their attitudes to learning: the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts education revealed that on average US liberal arts students’ political and social involvement and academic motivation actually decreased by the end of their studies.

There are a few causes for this intellectual stagnation. The first is the fact that there is no agreement on how to measure student growth, and no clear definition of what constitutes the kinds of quality learning and teaching practices that would lead to enhanced learning outcomes. While the UK government is keen to start measuring higher education learning and assessing teaching quality (HEFCE will coordinate a range of pilot studies of learning gain measurement, and Jo Johnson has announced a new Teaching Excellence Framework to be introduced in the next year), no one in the sector is certain what such measurements will look like nor how much power they will have to improve instructional practices.

This lack of clarity around teaching quality is in large part due to the prioritisation of university research over teaching. International university ranking systems barely take teaching quality into account: the QS rankings include faculty-student ratios as their sole measure of teaching quality, and the ARWU rankings rely on the proportion of alumni that are Nobel laureates and Field Medallists as their one indicator of teaching excellence. Closer to home, the media storm that accompanies research funding rounds like the Research Excellence Framework encourages universities to focus huge amounts of resources on specific types of REF-encouraged research. This has led the Institute of Economic Affairs to call for the REF to be abolished, explaining that its existence “uses significant resources and distorts resource allocation… away from teaching and knowledge dissemination.” David Willetts, former universities minister, admitted that “teaching has been by far the weakest aspect of English higher education.”

Universities, and their staff, are clearly incentivised to focus more on research than on teaching. This explains why, according to HESA data analysed by Which?, 38% of academic staff do not have a teaching qualification. A study commissioned by the QAA revealed that students are very concerned about the lack of clarity around teacher training, since they believe their academic experience is most strongly impacted by how much time they spend “being taught by well-qualified, trained teaching staff in small settings.” Since many staff therefore lack any formal training and/or an incentive to develop their pedagogical skills, it is not surprising that most courses still rely on traditional modes of learning (lectures and tutorials) and assessment (academic papers and final exams). Yet we know that students engage most with their learning when they are working towards a meaningful goal or on a meaningful project. This helps to explain why so many students are not learning much during their time at university.

A final reason many students are not able to demonstrate learning gains is a fundamental lack of rigour in their degrees. 35% of the students in the Academically Adrift study reported that they studied less than five hours a week and half had not had any courses requiring 20 pages of writing in the previous semester. This lack of rigour is highly comparable to the situation in UK universities: a 2013 HEPI/Which? report into English undergraduate academic experiences revealed that students have fewer than 15 hours of contact with teachers per week, with just 10% of that time spent in small groups (6 to 15 students). Presumably the low amount of contact with students is driven in large part by academics’ prioritisation of research over teaching. Research-intensive universities like those in the Russell Group argue that regardless of formal contact hours, students benefit from learning in a research environment in which they have access to world class academics. But the HEPI/Which? report tells us that in reality students have fewer than 2.5 informal meetings with teaching staff per term.

So the primary challenge facing universities today is how to engage students and ensure they are demonstrably learning throughout their degrees.


Preparation for the working world

The next challenge for universities is ensuring that their students are prepared for success after graduation, which increasingly involves the development of “soft” skills. In a 2014 study UK employers reported that they cared much more about graduates’ communication, team work and analysis skills than their technical knowledge. Yet YouGov research conducted in 2013 revealed that more than half of UK employers believed that none or few graduates were “work ready” as they had not sufficiently developed these “soft” skills.

Similar research from the US has found that while students believe they are well prepared for workplace success, their prospective employers disagree. A survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that while only 26% of employers felt that students were well prepared in terms of their critical/analytical thinking skills, 66% of students believed they had strong skills in this area, and for written communication skills the relative proportions were 27% of employers and 65% of students.

This reveals two important disconnects. First, students appear to lack self-awareness about their preparation for success in the workplace. Second, it shows a disconnect between the world of academia and the world of work, since universities do not appear to be focusing on developing the key skills students will need once they graduate.


Network development

Another challenge for universities lies in building students’ networks beyond the walls of the institution so that they can make career-advancing connections with business and industry. Over 95% of students surveyed by the National Centre for Universities and Business in 2014 believed that university partnerships with business and industry were important or essential, with 92% explicitly wanting work experience and internship opportunities. Yet only 47% of students in 2nd-4th year had undertaken any work experience or internships. Of those students, 68% of students had either organised their work experience/internship themselves, or relied on a family member or friend, and only 30% had their work experience/internship organised by their university.

This means that just 14% of all university students (30% of the 47% with work experience/internships) are receiving support from their institution to find work experience and internships, despite believing strongly that these opportunities are crucial for their future career success. It supports data released by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills showing that word of mouth or personal recommendation are the top channel used by recruiters when employing young people.

There are serious social consequences to this trend, since it is students from disadvantaged backgrounds who most often lack the kinds of social connections needed to build these networks, a finding supported by the Paired Peers research project conducted in Bristol. Given that recruiters expect to fill over 31% of entry level jobs with graduates who have already worked for their organisations, it is clear that young people from less privileged backgrounds face barriers at every step on their road to graduate employment. To help counter this challenge, the 2011 Edge report on UK graduate employability called for more universities to develop “structured approach[es] to placements, internships and work-based learning opportunities” and course designs that “emerge from a strong partnership with employer organisations” so as to give more students access to business and industry.



Finally, young people are increasingly seeking flexibility in their working lives, and now they want more flexibility from their academic experiences too. This poses two challenges for universities. In terms of system flexibility, students want learning to be structured more flexibly so that it can fit around part-time (and sometimes full-time) work, extended work placements, family commitments and the desire to study and travel abroad. This requires universities to develop online learning platforms, increase their provision of part-time courses, and enter into reciprocal course-recognition partnerships with other institutions. At a pedagogical level students want increased personalisation of course content and delivery, and more choice over preferred modes of learning, studying and producing work. This requires universities to become more flexible in both course delivery and assessment, and to prioritise the individual student experience.

Yet an HEA report notes that universities can struggle to provide both system flexibility and pedagogical flexibility, as offering more system flexibility (e.g. increasing online course provision) often reduces students’ personal contact with teaching staff and therefore leads to more standardised, and thus less flexible, learning. A Guardian roundtable also highlighted the challenges universities face in trying to generate institution-wide flexibility while retaining quality and integrity. Universities have to make strategic choices about the types of flexibility they provide students.

Designing a new university

How, then, can universities address these challenges? We could hope that the introduction of the TEF will gradually drive increased student learning by rewarding and promoting excellent teaching practices, and that the government’s commitment to provide increased graduate outcomes data will force universities to focus on preparing students for success in the workplace. Yet the university sector does not operate as an efficient market, as we have shown in our report on new entrants. In particular, Which? research has shown that many prospective students do not research the available indicators of university quality, so increased information may have limited real impact. But even if these policies do have some impact on universities, they still rely on adapting minor elements of an educational model that has essentially remained static for a thousand years.

Instead of revamping the traditional university model to cater for the needs of 21st century students, perhaps we need to be far more radical and design an entirely new type of university: a Future Uni that addresses these four major challenges through an integrated curriculum designed around four key principles: world-leading pedagogy, real-world impact and outputs, development of cohort and network, and targeted flexibility.


Improving student learning

Future Uni will use insights from universities and schools as well as business and industry in order to deliver the most powerful student learning experience possible. Students will not study within specific disciplines but will instead focus on creating solutions to a major global challenge, such as immigration, by combining content and skills from a range of disciplines. Students will cycle through a series of intense content-focused learning “boot-camps” before completing a mix of individual and team projects, all of which require students to produce meaningful content commissioned by industry, business or government clients. Students will be supported in their learning by skilled educators with a track record in teaching excellence and pedagogical design experience. They will experience meaningful mentoring and continual feedback throughout each project from teachers, peers and clients. Rather than focusing on research, all staff will be driven by a passion for teaching and learning that permeates through all elements of Future Uni.


Increasing preparation for the working world

Every single assessment task at Future Uni will be commissioned by a client from business, industry or government, giving students the opportunity to produce meaningful work and to learn from a wide range of mentors and role models. Assessment tasks will be designed to include an explicit focus on at least one relevant “soft” skill, so that student are explicitly learning and receiving feedback on the skills they will need for success beyond their studies.


Development of cohort and network

Future Uni will promote the development of a strong cohort bond by limiting the size of each cohort, focusing on students’ shared purpose and providing all students with a high level of challenge. In addition, the projects students complete at Future Uni will help them to build a diverse network of experts and role models in a range of fields.

Targeted flexibility

Finally, the design of Future Uni will incorporate targeted flexibility to support students in a range of ways. At the system level, rolling enrolment will allow students to begin in autumn, winter or spring and to repeat challenging terms or take a term off and then slot back in to a subsequent cohort without having to wait an entire year. However, Future Uni will not provide flexibility through online content delivery, part-time courses or optional electives because these would limit the power of its integrated and strategically designed curriculum. In terms of pedagogy, the use of client-driven projects will result in a curriculum that is frequently updated to reflect new challenges and approaches in a range of disciplines. Students will have personalised support because of the small cohort size and the frequent opportunities for feedback from clients, peers and teachers. The range of learning opportunities, from intense “boot-camps” to team-based projects, will give students the flexibility to learn and work in the ways they prefer.

It may be hard to imagine a university that looks like Future Uni, but if we want to see real change in the university sector we need to wholly re-imagine our idea of what a university is, rather than making minor alterations to a 1000-year old model.

Jennifer Ames & Edward Fidoe


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