Denseman on the Rattis

Formerly known as the Widmann Blog


Applying the Oxbridge model to universities in the internet age

University College
Originally uploaded by Lawrence OP

My alma mater is like most universities in that it is a single institution that does research, teaches students and awards degrees.

However, Oxford and Cambridge use a different model, the collegiate system:

The collegiate system is at the heart of the University’s success, giving students and academics the benefits of belonging to both a large, internationally renowned institution and to a smaller, interdisciplinary, academic college community. It enables leading academics and students across subjects and year groups, and from different cultures and countries to come together to share ideas.

All Colleges invest heavily in facilities for extensive library and IT provision, accommodation and welfare support, and sports and social events. The relatively small number of students at each college allows for close and supportive personal attention to be given to the induction, academic development and welfare of individuals.

Basically, what is called a university elsewhere is here split into a university and many colleges:

Colleges […]

  • Select and admit undergraduate students, and select graduate students after they are admitted […]
  • Provide accommodation, meals, common rooms, libraries, sports and social facilities, and pastoral care for their students.
  • Are responsible for students’ tutorial teaching and welfare.

The University

  • Determines the content of the courses within which college teaching takes place.
  • Organises lectures and seminars.
  • Provides a wide range of resources for teaching and learning in the form of libraries, laboratories, museums, computing facilities, etc.
  • Admits and supervises graduate students, examines theses.
  • Sets and marks examinations.
  • Awards degrees.

Modern universities are facing many challenges, especially because they’re being paid to produce as many graduates as possible, which easily leads to grade inflation and falling academic standards in general.

Also, streaming lectures on the internet is a great idea, but it means that the lecturer doesn’t need to be physically close to the students any more.

I’m therefore wondering whether it would make sense to redesign universities along Oxbridge lines.

To be concrete, here’s what I have in mind:

Create colleges that are responsible for teaching students. They should be relatively small (perhaps up to 500 students per college), multidisciplinary, and focusing not just on academic standards, but also on creating a great environment for students, what with libraries, parties, cafés and sports.

The remaining universities would seem much smaller that current universities, because all they would be doing would be research, post-graduate supervision, public lectures (mainly on the internet, perhaps), exams and awarding degrees.

Given that the lectures could be made available on the internet, and shipping exam papers around the world is easy, there is no reason why a college would have to be in the same physical location as the university. Also, the students could attend lectures at more than one university at the same time.

For instance, one could image a college in Glasgow offering a study programme in linguistic typology that would lead to a degree from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, but that included lectures by leading typologists at universities in California, Australia and Denmark.

Because the colleges wouldn’t be marking exams, there wouldn’t be any point in their dumbing down – if they were being too nice to their students, all they’d achieve would be unsatisfied students that failed their exams.

And although there would of course be universities offering easy degrees, the very best universities would have a reputation to protect, and they would therefore be likely to be extremely rigorous.

All in all a win-win situation.

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