Anthony Seldon

Sixth-formers are now questioning whether university is right for them

The needs of our sixth-formers are changing, says Anthony Seldon – can British universities keep up?

Sixth-formers are now questioning whether university is right for them
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The traditional edifice of sixth form, university in Britain, and a job for life is still the norm for many, but major cracks are beginning to appear in the infrastructure. As the father of three children, two of whom have been through university and one who is still there, as well as headmaster of a school which sends more than 200 young -people to university each year, I have to say that I am neither surprised, nor indeed sorry, that the traditional model is beginning to implode.

Increasing numbers are beginning to question whether higher education is right for them at all. Too few ask themselves the question, ‘Why am I going to university?’ Too many sleepwalk their way through the experience, without making the most of it as a result. Many more companies are now offering direct entry schemes for school-leavers. One of our most promising students last year, a senior prefect, has gone straight into an apprenticeship at such a firm, rejecting her place at a top university, and wrote to say that many more would benefit from working hard and learning on the job for three years rather than whiling away their time on abstract study. Adverse stories about repaying tuition fees are leading increasing numbers to form the same conclusion.

British universities are doing an outstanding job in many ways, with three in the world top-ten rankings and five in the top 20 of the best universities which are less than 50 years old. But there are growing problems around the experience of undergraduates. Outstanding though many of our universities are in their postgraduate experience, and in their record for research, I am yet to be convinced that they have fully woken up to the need to consider the experience of undergraduates. This article is certainly not a diatribe against our universities. I am writing in a personal capacity, as a parent and an observer, far more than as a head. But I am concerned.

At one end of the undergraduate spectrum stand highly vocational degrees, such as ‘Accounting and Business Administration’, while at the other end are degrees in pure academic subjects, including philosophy and literature. How well and fully educated do vice-chancellors really believe their leaving graduates are?

It seems that the lot of the undergraduate comes low in the hierarchy of many universities. Academic staff are rewarded, as we know, for their ability to further their academic discipline, not generally for their teaching skills. Many are not very good at either lecturing or tutoring, and would appear to be reluctant to learn how to improve their skills. The students often feel short changed, and find that their academic staff, in contrast to their teachers at school, are hard-pressed and unable or even unwilling to engage in discussion about their work.

When I was at university, to become an academic was the very apex of aspiration. I wonder if this is still true. Organisations like Teach First have promoted the status of school teaching, and top graduates vie to achieve places on their programmes. School teaching has become the new university lecturing.

Universities can be highly defensive about their prowess at caring for undergraduates pastorally, and many think they are doing an excellent job looking after the wellbeing of their undergraduates and tackling issues such as binge drinking. Some universities, like Essex, are doing a very good job, but I wonder about the general picture. Many young people find it difficult to transfer to higher education, and feel themselves isolated and in need of greater pastoral care, particularly in their transitional first year.

Some courses at universities are too rarefied and abstracted from the world at large. Too many university tutors are more interested in engaging in abstruse academic debates with each other than describing the real world that their subjects purport to illuminate. Undergraduates can leave university having studied a degree in economics but understanding very little of the way that companies and governments operate in practice; or having studied sociology but understanding very little about how society works or people or institutions think. They can study politics but leave with little grasp of how power operates within the nation state or between countries; study philosophy but understand little about the issues that have occupied the greatest minds in the world; study history,but acquire only a patchy sense of chronology because courses suit the researched interests of tutors more than the intellectual needs of undergraduates; study literature but leave immersed in the muddle that is much of literary theory rather than engaging with the works of the finest writers the world has seen.

The undergraduate experience thus too often fails to turn out rounded human beings, has little sense of what an educated young person is, and does too little to help make them employable in the marketplace, which, rightly or wrongly, will be the preoccupation of the vast number.

Some universities have risen to the challenge, such as Birmingham, which offers a ‘liberal arts and sciences’ degree, a four-year course with a year working abroad, promising rich intellectual, leadership and employment experience. The history department at UCL has redesigned its course to make it far more intellectually coherent and stimulating to its undergraduates.

A.C. Grayling’s New College of Humanities, which opened to its first undergraduates last year, is capitalising on the malaise in traditional British universities. In contrast to the standard 12-module undergraduate degree, its undergraduates take a total of 20 modules as part of a broad liberal arts curriculum. In addition to their single honours degree, all undergraduates study four modules in a second humanities subject, as well as modules in applied ethics, logical and critical thinking and science literacy. To help them prepare for the world of work, they also participate in a ‘professional programme’, which offers them seminars on topics including financial literacy, marketing, problem-solving, entrepreneurship, innovation and team-building.

Universities in the US have become powerfully popular precisely because they offer much broader courses which suit the vast majority of young people who will be going on to lead enquiring lives and work in a variety of businesses requiring a broad range of skills. When I joined Wellington College seven years ago, a bare handful of sixth formers applied to US universities. Now over a third actively inquire about going. It is not only middle-class children from British schools who want to cross the Atlantic: the Sutton Trust has set up summer schools for ‘non-privileged’ sixth formers to consider becoming undergraduates in the US.

The response I hear from British vice-chancellors is not encouraging. Rather than analysing why US universities have become more popular, and amending their own institutions to offer greater breadth of experience and sense of belonging, they dismiss it as a fad for rich kids. I wish only the best for British universities, which is precisely why I want those who run them to spend more time considering the experience of the undergraduate, and work to enrich it.

From the Spectator's Independent Schools supplement September 2013

Anthony Seldon is Master of Wellington College.