The escalator taking teens straight from school to university is a crazy way to proceed

22nd October 2010 at 01:00

It's time to revolutionise university education. For centuries it has been taken as read that this should be full time and follow straight from school. This was understandable in an age when life expectancy was low. But now we are likely to live to 80 or beyond, we have less reason to persist with the old pattern.

Look where this leads: ever-intensifying competition to get a university place; years of toil for high exam grades; anxiety for everyone, and final disappointment for many. The future looks at least as dark: more teenagers screwing up their intellects and powers of determination until they nearly snap; more opening their fateful envelope in August and seeing their years of labour become dust.

This is a crazy way to proceed. We could make the later school years so much more fulfilling. The proper purpose of education is to equip young people for a fulfilling life, personally and as citizens. This means - I follow the philosopher Joseph Raz here - getting them wholeheartedly engaged in worthwhile activities and relationships. These can be practical and aesthetic as well as truth-pursuing. They can include co-operative projects and solitary reading, as well as work within traditional subjects. They are often ill-fitted to the demands of the conventional timetable. Achievements can be recorded as they occur.

How could schools be removed from university domination? We could start now on a gradual cultural shift away from the present insanity. It would go along with the other change already beginning, from the pursuit of economic goals to creating the conditions for all to lead a happy and fulfilling life. One of these conditions, recently explored by the New Economic Foundation, is reducing the working week and creating more time for people to get involved in their own activities and relationships.

This vision explodes the myth that a university is some kind of privileged institution possessing characteristics that set it apart from, and above, other places - such as technical or further education colleges. The distinction between a university and a college is less conceptual than merely administrative, its function being to maintain a conventional hierarchy.

The new society will create a unified, undifferentiated system of post-school colleges. These will no longer cater almost exclusively for older adolescents, with a tiny accretion of adult classes. Campuses will be filled with people of all ages interested in part or full-time pursuit of worthwhile practical, academic and aesthetic activities of their own choice.

This is not to rule out provision for those 18-year-olds who wish to pursue their studies straight after school. But there would not be the current pressures on them to do so full-time. As many young people are doing now at the Open University, they could take on part-time studies after leaving school while holding down a job. Fiscal and other incentives could encourage them to consider later learning. My own higher education, for instance, began in earnest with a no-nonsense, part-time, evenings-based degree at the Univeristy of London's Birkbeck College, gained at the age of 30 - which helped to make up for three wasted years of full-time drift at Brasenose College, Oxford.

So although some 18 to 20-year-olds will still be full-time students - and steps will be needed to ensure that they are not mainly from privileged backgrounds - most young people will be in some sort of work. If they have a shorter working week, it will leave plenty of time for other things. Those studying part-time may be given special incentives to do so, in the form of money andor time.

This pattern will break the stranglehold universities have over secondary schools, shaping their curricula, and forcing teachers and students to see what they are doing as bitter competition for a place in the social sun. There will, of course, be resistance.

The image of those sparkling undergraduate years is a feature of our culture - a time of freedom, exploration, responsible self-management, networking, discovering who one is...

But hold on a tick. If this is all so good for those who experience it, how fair is it that they should be enjoying it while other 19- year olds are hard at work for pittances? As things are now, older school students see the prospect of three or four years of relative autonomy at college as fair reward for years of slog in public examinations. If we think this freedom is such a good thing, why not arrange it so that every young person has a self-discovering sabbatical? If a three-year one is too costly, should we think of, say, nine or 12 months as a universal entitlement? This might be an excellent way of making all our lives more fulfilling.

This last suggestion may seem too fanciful. It is, in any case, detachable from my more important argument - that cutting out the escalator that takes young people straight from sixth form to college could bring such benefits to schools.

Imagine them freed, post-14, from the shackles of public examinations! So much less reason for good teachers to prostitute themselves by teaching candidates how to play the system. So much more scope for students to throw themselves into studies and practical activities that grab them. Especially if you consider the horizons that can open up at adolescence: new passions, not only for relationships, but for the arts, philosophy and religion, a better world.

Keeping teenage noses to the grindstone may be good for initiating them into the work ethic and the rewards it can bring. But its benefits for personal fulfilment are harder to see.

John White is emeritus professor of philosophy of education, Institute of Education, University of London.

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