From two year 'accelerated’ degrees to harnessing artificial intelligence to improve grades, universities are changing with the times - and for the better.
Like the monolith in Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, a vision of stone, glass and mustard-coloured metal recently materialised on Blenheim Walk in Leeds. Complete with an auditorium and art gallery, library and “enterprise centre”, the 62,250 sq ft, £22 million development expands the central campus of the city’s Art University, whose alumni include Damien Hirst, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. The university’s “world-class studios and facilities” were christened in March with an exhibition from the equally world-class artist Yoko Ono.
British universities have collectively spent over £8.8 billion upgrading their estates over the past five years, a period Architects Journal has dubbed “the university building gold rush”. Leeds Art isn’t even remotely the biggest spender: the £1 billion North West Cambridge Development aims to accommodate a staff and student community predicted to swell by 8,000 in the next quarter-century, while plans for a £300-million Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus are rapidly taking shape in Bristol.
Crumbling campuses were once the hallmark of British universities. Yet competition for students has instigated an amenities arms race that shows no signs of abating. This competition has its origins in 2014, when George Osborne lifted the cap on student numbers, meaning universities could offer more places and expand.
It’s also a consequence of the internationalisation of the higher education sector; a trend Brexit seems to have boosted, with non-EU applications to UK universities at an all-time high. As prospective applicants size up institutions everywhere from America to Australia, flash facilities in the UK can give an institution an edge (though so too can the Brexit-weakened pound).
Edinburgh has long been one of the UK’s most global campuses, with around 40 per cent of its student body hailing from overseas. Professor James Smith wants this internationality to work both ways. As Vice-Principal International, he is “keen that all students spend at least some time overseas.” While European and English-speaking countries remain the most popular, those in Asia and South America are catching up.
Edinburgh’s current destinations include Mexico and Brazil, China and Korea—and the list is lengthening by the minute. “If study abroad is going to equip students for the future,” says Prof Smith, “it’s got to be global, not just European.” As Britain prepares to leave the EU, this is only going to become truer.
It isn’t only where students want to spend their time abroad that’s changing, but how. Whereas today’s students might want a year sunning themselves learning Spanish in Madrid, tomorrow’s are more practical: “We're seeing a much greater demand for summer schools, volunteering programmes, research projects and work experience.”
Students’ changing approach to going abroad may reflect changing fee structures. Since 2012, universities have been able to charge up to £9,250 for domestic students, while international students pay as much as £38,000. As tuition has skyrocketed, so have students’ expectations of value for money, with employability a top priority.
In the coming years, universities will continue to focus on smoothing the transition between study and work, whether that’s by inviting businesses to shape courses like University College London’s Integrated Engineering Programme, supercharging their careers service as Norwich Arts has done through gamification, or by encouraging students to incorporate work experience into their studies, as does The Exeter Award.
Money-minded, employment-oriented students also want shorter, sharper courses. In January, Parliament approved plans to expand two-year undergraduate degrees from September. These accelerated courses contain the same amount of teaching as their three-year counterparts, but at a minimum 20 per cent discount. Only a handful of institutions currently run the courses, which the Russell Group worries may disrupt learning and compromise the student experience—but as university increasingly becomes a passport into work, two years may soon be the new three.
Gen Z are digital natives and expect the same of their universities, most of which will require a serious tech upgrade. If Education 3.0 (a term educationalists use to describe integrating technology into learning) saw the digitisation of many university processes—lectures, exams, coursework—Education 4.0 will be data-driven.
Universities are no strangers to data: many have long been using learning analytics to monitor students’ performance, identify those who might be struggling, and adapt courses to students’ needs. Education 4.0 will supercharge this, harnessing artificial intelligence and big data to tailor courses to the individual.
Yet dazzling as this bright future may be, Oxford Professor of Higher Education Simon Marginson warns we’ve got a way to go until Education 4.0. He believes that while “customisable degrees will become more important over time, they won’t be dominant in the foreseeable future.” The reason he gives is reputational rather than technological: “Oxbridge still determines the product. As long as they retain fixed curricula, flexibility makes other institutions look of lower quality.”
There’s one thing Professor Marginson thinks will resist technological transformation: the campus. “Face-to-face still works best as a teaching and learning medium,” he says. “I run an online course, and my students just want to get together”. Education 4.0 may offer radical new ways of teaching and learning, but sometimes, the old ways are the best.