Student Housing: an utopian vision

Student accommodation is returning to being a big issue.  Recent pieces have called attention to the cost, and that many accommodation packages now cost in excess of the annual maintenance loan.  Meanwhile, there is concern about the provision for ‘commuting’ students.  This brings us back to why we are in this situation – why has the UK, but particularly England, prioritised the residential student experience?

I did a quick summary of the history and emerging problems, but here I want to present an optimistic vision of student housing in the post-war period as described in a book by William Mullins and Phyllis Allen – Student Housing – Architectural and Social Aspects published in 1971.

This book sets out to look at student housing in the UK with an appraisal of its requirements, plans and photographs of some of the ‘better schemes’ built internationally, and a briefing guide for those ‘coming to the problems of student housing for the first time’ (Mullins & Allen 1971 p vii).

The chief glory is the plans and photographs, depicting an international style of housing.  Sometimes this is integrated with teaching, in collegiate settings, and sometimes in separate locations.  What’s clear is that provision is broadly equal; there are no luxury studio flats – these are not segregated gated communities built on the ability to pay (in the UK this is a deliberate consequence of UGC funding policies).  As a consequence these are temporary homes, intended to be a base away from the family home, encouraging integration in the common pursuit of study.

External Spaces

With the exception of the halls in London, the majority of the housing featured have generous external spaces, with clear connections between the different buildings. Mullins and Allen do not arrange their illustrated schemes in chronological order, but an early example featured is the Graduate Centre at Harvard, whose principal architect Walter Gropius taught at the Graduate School of Design.

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Graduate Centre, Harvard 1951 (The Architects Collaborative) p77

The international style is such that this type of covered walkway is a feature of many post-war UK campuses.   Harvard could easily be York or Lancaster.

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West Midlands College of Education, Walsall 1963 (Richard Sheppard, Robson & Partners) p193

Away from the universities, colleges of education were being built on similar lines.  Architects for Local Education Authorities built campuses that looked very similar to those being constructed for the ‘new universities’.   In turn, student housing could also go upwards in precast concrete.

Student Life 

There is a clear sense that the housing is designed to create community.  Although the single study bedrooms (the briefing guide notes the privacy problems of shared rooms) are increasingly independent, there are generous communal spaces.

The plans shows that, as well as the corridor or staircase models of residences, the grouping into flats with shared resources was starting to come in.  There are rooms with ensuite facilities too.  Student life in the rooms is similar with a bed and a desk, but also different: record players and radios are the only technology in sight.

Furniture and Fittings

The guide at the end of the book raises issues that architects need to consider when planning housing, including the cost of furnishing the rooms. Handy hints are offered about new modular furniture, and how these might be converted to use for summer lets. The photographs provide further insights into student rooms in use.

Finance

Mullins & Allen note that Treasury grants (via the UGC) will be inadequate to meet the need created by rising student numbers, and universities should now be looking for loan finance. They note that Lancaster had the first successful scheme; borrowing £500,000 at 8% over 30 years. The sums worked on students paying £3 per week (the only possible upgrade bring an extra 2 shillings & 6 pence a week for a room with a hand basin).

There was no return to major capital funding of residences – student accommodation moved off the main balance sheet, as loans financed institutional building – especially as non-UGC HEIs caught up with provision. The growth of student housing companies now means a far greater variety of provision, but what was once the standard vision of decent communal spaces is reserved for luxury providers. Mullins & Allen offer an insight back to a vision of egalitarian provision for all students, a utopia – increasingly non-existent.

Reference

Mullins W & Allen P, 1971,  Student Housing – Architectural and Social Aspects, London, Crosby Lockwood & Son.  

National exams are no answer to grade inflation

The English HE regulator has made an entry to the grade improvement/inflation debate, firmly accusing universities of inflation. And as a response Sonia Sodha has pitched some solutions, including:

university examination boards that are responsible for setting assessment right across the system

She also suggests opening exams at universities to other students (the system that ran when external students could take London exams) which neatly subjugates the teaching of one university to another.

We had something similar in the summer with Tom Richmond’s A Degree of Uncertainty report for Reform. He clearly saw some of the obvious pitfalls with national exams, so came up with the concept of the ‘Designated Assessment Body’ (DAB). The DAB would set an exam for each subject which would be used each year to assess what proportion of the subject cohort would get which degree class.   We know that simple norm referencing would be awful; predetermining a fixed % across different universities would be a nonsense, so the DAB is a great example of British policy making.  It contrived an extraordinary system to deal with the intractable flaw to a solution no one wants to a problem that may not be real (cf TEF).

I want to focus on just one aspect of this, and explain why it brought Immanuel Kant to mind.  Richmond advances the idea that within each principal subject area, the OfS would appoint a DAB.  The DAB would adopt the most stringent powers of any of the existing PSRBs, the GMC, and allow it to require all sorts of things from universities – such as maximum SSRs.  But the heart of it comes in its assessment:

Each DAB would create a single, national assessment for all final-year students in the subject(s) that they are responsible for. This would be based on a ‘core curriculum’ written by the DAB in partnership with HE providers that would cover the fundamental elements of the degree course in question. It is envisaged that this assessment would be no more than 3-4 hours in length. It may comprise of one or two separate elements (e.g. one ‘knowledge’ and one ‘skills’ test) and it would be up to the DAB to decide whether the test(s) would be best suited to a paper-based or online format. (p37)

Richmond wants to limit this to a ‘core’ and for it to only count for 10% of a degree classification in order to deflect from the obvious concern that this would impose a national curriculum.  But clearly it would still have the same effect.  The assessment would drive what proportion of the subject cohort would be able to get good degrees.  A cohort of students that performed well would get allocated a greater slice of the national number of firsts.  Clearly performance in this assessment will really matter – not least as Richmond envisages running a value-added KPI it will be plugged into every league table.

Richmond knew that this is controversial, so he cited the existing work of two PSRBs here; Medicine and Law.  The GMC and the BSB/SRB systems are different, but both have defined the accepted content for the academic stage of the training for a regulated career.  In each case the curriculum to be followed is very well established, but with variations on the level of detail. For example law students must study the key elements and general principles of seven areas of legal study, thereby ensuring that every LLB graduate knows torts.  Although the joint standard is rather board, there is a great deal of acceptance of what constitutes the study of torts; a feature of legal study based on key precedents and cases.

This makes them rather different from other subjects.  The subject benchmark for history opens with the following statement:

History differs from many subjects in that historians do not recognise a specific body of required knowledge or a core with surrounding options. It is taken as self-evident that the acquisition of knowledge and understanding of the human past is of incalculable value both to the individual and to society at large, and that a key object of education in history is to enable this to be acquired. It is accepted that there is variation in how the vast body of knowledge which constitutes the subject is tackled in different honours degree programmes.

Sodha’s notion that Oxford Brookes would prepare students for Oxford’s history exams doesn’t get around that – it’s just saying that their take on that variation should be prioritised over other universities.

Richmond’s solution of allowing history to have a core curriculum on ancient or modern history misses the point too.  The point is that history doesn’t have a fixed curriculum, and that is what makes it, and other subjects, a higher education.  This brings us to the Conflict of the Faculties.

Immanuel Kant wrote his Conflict of the Faculties in response to a rebuke issued under the king of Prussia’s name in 1794. Accused of misusing his philosophy to ‘distort and disparage many of the cardinal and foundational teachings of the Holy Scriptures’ the king demands he gives a ‘conscientious vindication’ of his actions and to not repeat his actions ‘Failing this, you must expect unpleasant measures for your continuing obstinacy’

Kant’s response builds on the traditional division of the university in a lower (philosophical or arts) faculty and three upper faculties (Theology, Law and Medicine).  This was the medieval structure where the arts had to be studied before a student could take a higher degree in one of the professions (broadly this distinction has been maintained in the US system).  For Kant, this distinction is important – the professions were directed by the state:

So the biblical theologian … draws his teachings not from reason but from the Bible; the professor of law gets his, not from natural law, but from the law of the land; and the professor of medicine does not draw his method of therapy as practiced upon the public from the physiology of the human body but from medical regulations.  As soon as one of these faculties presumes to mix with its teaching something it derives from reason, it offends against the authority of the government that issues orders…  (Kant, I, Conflict of the Faculties, 1992 Lincoln University of Nebraska Press p 35)

The lower faculty had to be free, it had to base its teaching on reason alone.  This version of academic freedom was, of course, highly disciplined (we must continue to draw the distinction between academic freedom and freedom of speech).  This is Lehrfreiheit – the freedom to teach.  In the contemporary British university this is qualified; there are approval processes, using those subject benchmarks, and the marketing department may have a view or two.  In curriculum terms, Richmond’s DAB proposal is highly problematic; although to defers to a subject community, it aims to fix an element of each subject around a common core defined years in advance by a central committee appointed by the OfS.

Having held the right of the lower faculty to use reason, he goes onto helpfully show that it could help the higher faculties.  His own physiology examples may not have been that helpful (Kant had interesting views about digestion), but in the two centuries science has amply shown that it can help medicine.

We need to understand grade improvement, and we need to separate the many causes that are grounded in better teaching, better assessment and better student effort from any gaming from universities with an eye on a league table. There’s a process already looking at this, which OfS decided to gatecrash this week; it’s vital that national or external exams do not become the suggested solution to this issue.