Another view - Has the fiscal squeeze left FE students with no place to go?

19th February 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Stephen Jones

Monday morning. The students look pale and wan. Several are attempting - not very successfully - to conceal their yawns.

It's not me, I tell myself. They're tired. The subject is of interest to them. We are taking part in what, since Christmas, has become our in-house version of Start the Week: my tutor group telling me, and each other, what offers (or rejections) they have received from universities in the past week.

This process has its difficulties. Some students get offers right away. Others have to wait until as late as March to hear anything. Through gritted teeth, the ones that haven't received good news congratulate those that have.

My task is to whistle happily and persuade them that hearing nothing is not the same thing as being rejected. Otherwise they can lose themselves for weeks in a pit of self-loathing and gloom. As adult students getting their second (sometimes third) chance, they don't have the resilience of the 17- or 18-year-olds. They've had so many knock-backs already that they assume it will happen again.

And there are more difficulties than usual this year. A grading system has been introduced in their access course whereby units can be achieved at pass, merit or distinction. It should be simple enough. But it isn't.

Those of us implementing it are only half-aware of how to do so. A pilot scheme was intended to help, but the results seem never to have been released. If they were, they haven't permeated down to us.

Under the system, all units come with grade descriptors such as "very good" for merit or "excellent" for distinction. But these terms are somewhat vague and open to interpretation. As a teacher, you worry that if you take excellent to mean just that - the student really needs to "excel" to receive it - other teachers might not, and your students will lose out.

This uncertainty also affects the universities, who are trying to pick their way through it in terms of the offers they make to students like mine. Some are sticking to their old practice of simply asking for a pass. But others are trying to match the new access system to A-level grades, and in most cases I have seen they are failing.

It's not entirely their fault. You might expect that if a system is set up involving pass, merit and distinction, then students would come out at the end of it having achieved their higher education diplomas at one of these grades.

But no. There will be no overall grades, or grades for individual subjects. There will be a "grade profile". How this works we are free to guess. But someone should tell the universities. At present, they are blithely setting conditions that students can't meet because the qualifications simply aren't set up that way.

Still Monday morning. My students know something of the above, which is not improving their mood. A latecomer enters clutching a copy of London's free paper, the Metro. I know what the front page lead says, which is why I have tried to keep it from them. Too late. He's already reading it out. The first paragraph is enough: "A third of students," he declares, "could be denied a place on a degree course this autumn after more than pound;600 million was slashed from budgets yesterday."

Wails. Moans. Gnashing of teeth. "Why have we sacrificed so much only for the prize to be snatched away now?" is the general sentiment.

My whistling hits a new and desperate pitch. It isn't as bad as it sounds, I say. It's an ongoing struggle - the universities are putting a worst- case scenario to embarrass the Government into coughing up more money. There have been cuts in the past, but still everyone has ended up getting the university places they wanted.

That's what I tell them. And I believe it. Don't I?

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