A new form of education? By Gove, I hope not

A level of education: but is it the right one?

Recently, a colleague of mine at one of the UK's top universities set a class test for his first year students.  It was much the same test he has been setting for many years, and does not demand a ridiculous level of scholarship.

When the results came out, though, the mean mark for the exam was a staggering 26%.  The best score of any student was 75%.  And this from first-year undergraduates at one of the most prestigious higher education institutions in the British Isles!

So when Education Secretary Michael Gove says A-Levels need changing, because they're not equipping students for university courses appropriately, I'm inclined to agree.  Many students who scored well at A-Level are not scoring well at university.

It seems there is a disjoint between the skills that enable you to succeed in further education, and those required in higher education.  Key among these - and disappointingly absent in many students I have encountered - is the ability to interrogate a dataset intelligently and come up with your own meaningful interpretation.

However, despite this, Gove is completely wrong to suggest that the solution is for universities to set the A-Level syllabus.  Firstly, further education should not simply be about preparing students for university.  It should be about educating students well, and equipping them for whatever career path they decide to take.  Companies and industry should have as much input into its format as higher education institutes.

Secondly, whom in the universities does Gove think would actually set the A-Level course content?  The vice-chancellors?  I don't think so!  The heads of departments?  Unlikely!  The tutors in charge of undergraduate courses?  Possibly, but they won't be volunteering for the job.

Gove appears blissfully ignorant of the fact that modern universities don't actually value teaching that highly.  In my experience, the message from on high is that teaching is a necessary evil.  The only thing you must excel in is research: bring in the money and publish the papers!  And if universities don't value their own teaching, why the heck are they going to value someone else's?

This attitude is - to me, at least - abhorrent and ignorant, but sadly prevalent.  There are many great lecturers, but they are great in spite of, not because of the system.  Such people could undoubtedly (and probably already do) make useful suggestions as to how students are taught before they reach university, but demanding that they actually set those courses would be a final nail in their career coffin.

What Mr Gove should be working towards is an integrated further-higher education system in which excellent teachers and teaching are valued, both at A-Level and at university.  Learning should be broad and innovative in schools and colleges, preparing those who wish to go onto higher education for the sorts of demands they'll be faced with, but also those who go in other directions.

He should also be ensuring that universities recognize the need to offer excellent, innovative teaching themselves, and not just be focussed on research.  Otherwise, no matter how good the students are when they arrive there, their excellence will not be sustained.  And then we really will be in a mess.