For institutions supposedly containing clever and innovative people, universities are sometimes strangely conservative places. We sometimes stick to outdated practices even when they are clearly in need of overhaul. To benefit not just the current cohort of 66,000 students at Northern Ireland’s universities (2.75 million across the UK) here are a few suggestions for change.
Applications to university should be made after A-level results are known, not before. If I’d received a tenner every time this change was promised, I would have retired early with my fortune.
But it never happens. Instead, we persist in making offers based on predicted grades which are wrong more than one-third of the time.
Students applying to university this autumn had to choose their university course by January 15, needlessly early. They will receive their A-level results more than eight months later, on August 18. Universities will not know numbers for planning until a few weeks before term. It makes no sense.
It would be far more logical for A-levels to be completed in February of the final year of sixth form, results announced in May and university applications completed in June.
Places could then be allocated in July via actual achievement, not punditry. Stressed students and university admissions tutors could enjoy their summer.
I concede the compressed timetable might be tricky for universities or departments that interview candidates (Oxbridge, veterinary science, medicine etc.) but is not insurmountable.
Whilst on admissions, what is the point of personal statements on UCAS forms?
Nothing personal and call me a philistine but I’m not overly interested that you “enjoyed playing Titania in the school production of Midsummer Night’s Dream”.
I’m not even that impressed you were “fascinated by the 2019 general election”. I’d be worried if you were applying for a politics degree if turned off by elections.
Look, I’ll let you into a secret. Most departments (there are exceptions) don’t even see personal statements these days. A central admissions unit will look at your predicted grades. If they seem realistic and match the A-level requirements of AAB or whatever, you are likely to receive a conditional offer.
The other big area of university conservatism is degree boundaries.
They are melting faster than Arctic ice. The lower second-class honours award faces extinction. Almost everyone (well, 85% anyway) gets a first or upper second class degree these days.
One in three students in Northern Ireland received the top grade last year. Only five years ago, it was one-in-four.
Three decades back, the figure was below one-in-ten. This is hugely upsetting to those of us who graduated with a first in that era (have I ever mentioned this before?) –and wanted to pull up the drawbridge.
Seriously though, the current grading system is not fit for purpose. Replace it with simple percentage bands, graded A++ for a student averaging an (unlikely) 90% plus overall, A+ for 80% to 89%, A for 70%-79% and so on. It is hardly complicated.
Grade inflation will inevitably ensue as anything below A comes to be seen as terrible but the change will at least buy the grading system credibility for a few years.
Another university issue is attendance. No, I’m not talking staff here, although over the years I’ve known the odd colleague to spend their time scheming to avoid ever having to enter a lecture theatre. What about students?
In a world of online, with our lectures recorded and accessible to those who cannot be bothered turning up on a rainy Monday morning, is there a need for face-to-face interaction?
I’d argue yes. Seminar discussions, demonstrating the capacity to argue a coherent and reasoned case, are an important component of the degree.
Yet some students have an absenteeism record to shame even a Northern Ireland Executive. Maybe oral reasoning in group discussions should form a bigger part of assessment?
One thing our universities have got right in the last two years has occurred purely by accident.
Covid meant cancellation of the big graduation ceremonies. When universities undertook research as to what students felt saddest about when face-to-face contact was halted, the message came back loud and clear. Lectures? Er, no. Seminars? If only. It was missing out on graduation.
To their credit, universities have worked hard on allowing students to enjoy this experience via smaller-scale departmental ceremonies. Take a bow in this respect, Queen’s Belfast. The ceremony for the eldest (Politics, obviously) last December could not have been bettered. Short, lively, and to the point. Even the prosecco afterwards was drinkable.
How much better and more intimate such occasions have been than the interminably drawn-out standard graduations.
At those, it seems like the population of a small nation is clapped off stage, the Vice Chancellor shaking everyone’s hand whilst struggling to maintain a rictus smile through the agony.
Sadly though, outdated tradition alert again, it appears universities will revert to the old graduation model.
Proceedings are prolonged by the award of an honorary degree to a worthy, although many students — whose day it is supposed to be — won’t have heard of them. Then there is the obligatory reminder that all graduating students are now part of the alumni community, which is just one step short of flashing up the university’s online bank transfer details in case the graduates want to donate in future.
Overall, what should we grade universities on change? Maybe give them the final-ever lower second-class honours.
Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool