There are no important official or legal distinctions between the various types of university in the country. But it is possible to discern a few broad categories.
This name denotes the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, both founded in the medieval period. They are federations of semi-independent colleges, each college having its own staff, known as “Fellows”. Most colleges have their own dining hall, library and chapel and contain enough accommodation for at least half of their students. The Fellows teach the college students, either one-to-one or in very small groups (known as “tutorials” in Oxford and “supervisions” in Cambridge). Oxbridge has the lowest student-staff ratio in Britain. Lectures and laboratory work are organized at university level. As well as the college libraries, there are the two university libraries, both of which are legally entitled to a free copy of every book published in Britain. Before 1970 all Oxbridge colleges were single-sex (mostly for men). Now, the majority admit both sexes.
The Old Scottish universities
By 1600 Scotland boasted four universities. They were Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and St Andrews. The last of these resembles Oxbridge in many ways, while the other three are more like civic universities (see below) in that most of the students live at home or find their own rooms in town. At all of them the pattern of study is closer to the continental tradition than to the English one – there is less specialization than at Oxbridge.
The early nineteenth-century English universities
Durham University was founded in 1832. Its collegiate living arrangements are similar to Oxbridge, but academic matters are organized at university level. The University of London started in 1836 with just two colleges. Many more have joined since, scattered widely around the city, so that each college (most are non-residential) is almost a separate university. The central organization is responsible for little more than exams and the awarding of degrees.
The older civic (“redbrick”) universities
During the nineteenth century various institutes of higher education, usually with a technical bias, sprang up in the new industrial towns and cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. Their buildings were of local material, often brick, in contrast to the stone of older universities (hence the name, “redbrick”). They catered only for local people. At first, they prepared students for London University degrees, but later they were given the right to award their own degrees, and so became universities themselves. In the mid twentieth century they started to accept students from all over the country.
The campus universities
These are purpose-built institutions located in the countryside but close to towns. Examples are east Anglia, Lancaster, Sussex and Warwick. They have accommodation for most of their students on site and from their beginning, mostly in the early 1960s, attracted students from all over the country. (Many were known as centres of student protest in the late 1960s and early 1970s.) They tend to emphasize relatively “new” academic disciplines such as social sciences and to make greater use than other universities of teaching in small groups, often known as “seminars”.
The newer civic universities
These were originally technical colleges set up by local authorities in the first half of the twentieth century. Their upgrading to university status took place in two waves. The first wave occurred in the mid 1960s, when ten of them (e.g. Aston in Birmingham, Salford near Manchester and Strathclyde in Glasgow) were promoted in this way. Then, in the early 1970s, another thirty became “polytechnics”, which meant that as well as continuing with their former courses, they were allowed to teach degree courses (the degrees being awarded by a national body). In the early 1990s most of these (and also some other colleges) became universities. Their most notable feature is flexibility with regard to studying arrangements, including “sandwich” courses (i.e. studies interrupted by periods of time outside education). They are now all financed by central government.
Should parents have the right to educate their children privately?
One of the most contentious social issues in most countries is that of education. In education, people see a clear route to a better life for their children. Most people regard some level of education as a right; the degree of education to which we are entitled by right varies from country to country. In Britain, the state provides a free education, for all children, from age 5-18. The aim is to produce a comprehensive and high-quality education for all its citizens. However, if a degree is then pursued, it must be undertaken at the student’s expense. There are student-loan facilities in place to limit the financial impact of further education, but the student must pay these back when he/she starts to earn above a certain amount after graduation. This education system is supplemented in Britain by independent, fee-paying schools to which parents can send their children if they can afford it. The British model raises many questions, not just pertaining to itself, but to more general issues as well: do you have a right to an education? To what sort of education are you entitled? If parents wish to send their children to a private school, should they have the right to do so?
Parents who want to send their children to a fee-paying school are making a decision based on what is best for their children. They decide to use the money they have earned to give their children the best opportunities in life. Private schools provide parents with an alternative to the state sector, and a learning environment, which might better suit their children. All they are doing is using their money to help their children. In addition, whilst there are many bad state schools, there are also bad private schools, and some excellent state schools which compete with the best private schools. It is clear from this last fact that state schools can be the successes that we want them to be, whilst still allowing others the right to choose a different option.
Private schools do not provide all parents with an alternative – only those who can afford it. Such schools perpetuate social inequality, as a better education tends to lead to a better-paid job, which in turn enables one to send one’s own children to such a school. Consequently, equal opportunities are denied to the children of poorer families. With the patronage of wealthier parents, private schools attract resources far higher than state schools. Moreover, with the (often academically selected) children from more affluent backgrounds, greater resources and smaller classes, these schools are unsurprisingly more attractive to teachers than state schools. We have a situation where state schools are potentially deprived not only of able pupils, but also very able teachers, thus compounding the inequalities. Such a state of affairs is socially divisive, and must be avoided.
The existence of private education can actually be financially beneficial to state schools. The state funds the education system through taxation. Parents who do not send their children to state schools still pay those same taxes. Most schools provide bursaries for able pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is evidence against private schools being socially divisive.
The bursary system does little more than improve private schools whilst depriving state schools of some of their most able pupils. Another factor is that whilst a small proportion of children do get in on academic ability with bursaries, they are a small minority of those similarly able and disadvantaged, whilst less able children from more wealthy backgrounds benefit.
A degree or other further study is no-one’s right; it is a privilege to be able to extend your education up to this level. Research shows that graduates have better employment prospects, and earn, on average, higher wages than non-graduates. You stand to get a lot out of your degree, it is not unreasonable to expect you to put something in to pay for it.
Higher education should not be a privilege; making students pay for university education will inevitably lead to a huge gulf between those, who can afford to pay, and those who are deprived of the opportunities open to a graduate, because they cannot. Moreover, there are professions, such as medicine and law, in which it takes longer and costs much more to qualify. These professions will be ring-fenced for the social elite, who alone can afford to enter them.
Universities need ever increasing funds, in order to compete in research at the highest levels. Government could pay more, but rather than deprive other areas of funding, it seems fair that students contribute to the universities’ funds. With low interest, government loans, which need only be paid back over a number of years, after you passed a certain earning threshold, the burden can be eased considerably.
Despite the lower interest loans, students will leave university with considerable debt. Those from the poorest backgrounds will be severely disadvantaged. They simply will be dissuaded from pursuing higher education, if doing so means amassing a debt of £10,000 or more. They will be pressed by necessity to go straight into employment. As far as possible we should try to prevent defining life choices being dictated by financial factors out of the student’s control.
When degrees were funded by grants, it encouraged less-motivated people to wander into university. This led to many students who did not have a responsible attitude towards their degrees. With students taking a direct and considerable financial stake in their own university education, degrees will only attract the more responsible, motivated students.
A consequence of the financial burden upon students is that they have to split their attention between earning money – often in term-time – and studying. Money worries often consume people’s thoughts, and detract from whatever academically responsible dispositions they are purported to have.
The Independent Review
In a move that could have every teacher in Britain reaching for the Valium, the Department for Education and Science (DfES) plans to encourage children to email their teachers out of school hours, to help with last-minute revision and homework queries in the evenings and at weekends.
The idea sounds fine at first. Some anxious parents may see it as the solution to their nightmares. No more having to help with GCSE maths or English coursework: a quick email to Sir or Miss will do nicely instead. But anyone who's ever been stuck in a classroom with teenagers for hours on end will know that it's essential to get a break from them sometimes.
In fact, the sure knowledge that you'll be free of 4C at the end of the school day can be the only thing that keeps a teacher sane. If this new scheme is successful, teachers will no longer be able to escape their charges so easily. Picking up emails at home may only take a few minutes, but it will inevitably take teachers straight back to the mind-set of “school”.
Teenagers being what they are, the system will be open to all sorts of abuse, whether unintentional or not. An out-of-hours “safety net” could, for example, encourage pupils not to concentrate in class: because they will be able to clear up queries later. In fact, they can now have the best of all possible worlds: mess around in school and still catch up on their work when it suits them. Knowing how reluctant boys in particular can be to seem “keen” by asking questions in front of their peers, this seems likely to happen.
And here’s a sample of some of the student emails I hope never to get, but no doubt will soon be picking up once the new system starts:
“Hi, Sir! Remember me? U taught me two years ago, before I left – and I’m now retaking my GCSEs (if u remember, I only got a D grade!). Anyway, I need a quick bit of revision on The Mayor of Casterbridge and wondered if u could spare me a few hours to go thru it with me next week some time??? (PS I'm free Monday.) Don’t worry – I’ve actually read the book this time! Cheers, Dave X.”
“Hi, Sir! I know it’s New Year’s Day, so I know you’ll be very impressed with me thinking about work. I wrote three essays for AS coursework on Jane Austen over the holidays and have now attached them for u to mark. Any chance of a quick look by return? You’ll have to print them off yourself, but they’re only about 1,500 words each. All the best, Sophie Y.”
Of course, new technology has its part to play in improving examination results, but we need to draw the line somewhere. That’s why the prospect of out-of-hours emails from pupils doesn’t even bear thinking about.
The writer is an English teacher at Charterhouse School.