by ROBIN SHREEVE
Merlyn Crossley’’s op ed on micro-credentials (CMM February) made me reflect on my own distant university experience from a bygone age and the contemporary experience of a number of very recent graduates.
I recently completed a contract on workforce development for a large infrastructure project in Australia. To help me with this project my employer kindly allocated a number of graduate trainees, fresh from a range of Group of Eight universities. They were all very bright, very motivated and highly intelligent. Though I had worked with students, young and mature, for the best part of 30 years I had not really had the opportunity to talk in depth with them over an extended period. I had also been in senior management roles which limited my student contact time (yes, I feel guilty). My long career had also been in the VET sector which has its own differentiated student cohorts and experiences.
Before I really got to know them, I knew it would be difficult to explain and justify that I had completed two degrees debt free, in fact the government had paid my tuition fees and living costs. I knew they would already be aware of this baby boomer privilege. But I suspected correctly they would be amazed the university I attended in England in the 1970s did not allow its students to take a part time job on pain of being “sent down,” as the university then argued this was a full-time course and required no employment distractions. Most of my new colleagues needed at least two casual jobs during university to survive economically and were constantly juggling work and study commitments. They were amazed my tutorials were one to one, not the one to 30 or more they were used to. The larger tutorial sizes did have their upsides when they found out I had to read out a 2,000-word essay weekly to my academic tutor. They were also unsure about whether it was an advantage that my degree largely depended on my passing a set of “Part One” and “Finals” formal closed, three-hour examinations rather than the continuous assessment of a succession of modules.
From a purely selfish point of view, I was truly fortunate to go to university when I did. In the 1970s universities were expanding and opening up to people like me who were “first in family” to graduate. But it was not open access. Depending on your point of view it was either a selective and limited “meritocracy” or there were significant barriers to entry – ostensibly academic but in reality, also economic social and cultural. Universities were then run by people used to privilege and those privileges extended to what they considered the essential characteristics of a university. These had to be preserved even as the sector grew. The chancellor of my University was Lord Clark (the art historian Kenneth Clark of “Civilisation” fame). The vice chancellor was Lord James of Rusholme, a former academic and headmaster of the then most academically selective school in England, Manchester Grammar. A dominant personality, his views of what a university should be about were the polar opposites of current thinking. He did not permit part-time students or any “vocational subjects”. No law, no medicine and certainly no business studies. There was also no geography as Lord James did not consider that a pure enough academic discipline. University was about theory, critical thinking and contemplation of the human condition – hardly surprisingly F R Leavis was a visiting professor.
Needless to say, this university has changed over the last 45 years and now has both part time students and vocational subjects including law and medicine. The university student experience has also changed but is still largely centred on residential in halls or colleges. This seems a significance difference between the UK and Australia as listening to students complain about COVID-19 restrictions, the English ones complain more about missing out on the social side of university even to events like a “fresher’s week”.
So, on reflection we have gained tremendously in widening participation and I applaud the growth in vocational subjects, but have we lost anything educational in current practice?
The recent graduates I worked with seemed technically competent in their disciplines. But anecdotally and impressionistically their knowledge beyond their discipline areas seemed more limited than that I remember of my contemporaries at their age. This extended to vocabulary, even though a number came from identified migrant communities, not one claimed to have ever to have heard the term “diaspora”.
My impressions could be easily dismissed as highly selective, rose tinted, conservative nostalgia for a bi-gone age. Such criticisms are not new, the American academic Abraham Flexner was making similar points in the 1920’s. It could be that any current downsides are rooted not in the education contemporary students receive but a continuing shortage in “social capital” for the economically and socially disadvantaged. But in one sense the criticism seemed to echo what the students themselves told me. They said the worst aspect of their recent university experience was that they never felt they studied anything in sufficient depth. It was a constant battle to study just enough to achieve the module unit requirements in time whilst juggling the demands of work. With current moves to greater utilisation of “stackable” micro-credentials increasingly (and currently necessarily) delivered on-line I wonder if we in are danger of backing form over substance and missing a key part of the university educational experience.
I tend to agree with Merlyn Crossley that micro-credentials should be delivered outside of universities or is this an overly nostalgic view which is fundamentally discriminatory, impractical and unaffordable? The worst outcome would be that such a curriculum and teaching style is revived but reserved for the few not the many.
adjunct professor Federation University, honorary senior fellow L H Martin Institute, former director of TAFE NSW Western Sydney Institute and City of Westminster College, London