student life

Universities should make switching courses easier

In May this year, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced a ‘Higher Education and Research Bill’ in order to “deliver choice and opportunity for students” at university. They put out a call for evidence into ‘accelerated courses and switching university or degree’.

They said: “We are interested in getting a better understanding of the barriers that currently prevent both types of more flexible approach from working effectively”.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recently revealed the results from their investigation and identified the potential barriers that they feel are deterring students from switching courses or institutions.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say how difficult, complex and frustrating it is for students currently when deciding if you should switch course or university.

Prior to starting university, I applied to study for a foundation degree in Music Industries Management, where I was told we could ‘top-up’ our degree with an extra year to turn it into a Bachelors degree. What I wasn’t told however, was that we were only entitled to a select few top-up courses: a measly two. None of which were entirely relevant to my foundation degree… one was Creative Business, the other was Professional Broadcasting Techniques, the latter of which I had had no experience of whatsoever.

Because of how limited my choices were, and how uninterested I was in the course choices, I applied for a degree in Journalism and English starting from the first year. I essentially started my degree from scratch again. Ignoring the financial implications of this, although admittedly it shouldn’t be completely ignored, I wasn’t provided with accurate or in depth-enough information before I selected my course and university to study.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ Higher Education and Research Bill says: “Our aim is to encourage more flexible provision to meet students’ diverse needs.

“We need a higher education system which is flexible enough to adapt.”

Why students switch courses.

There are a number of reasons why students find they wish to change course or university. To be honest, I think people make decisions about what to study when they’re too young. And it all depends on what courses are offered at your 6th form or college. Some of the people I made friends with at university were studying courses I’d never even heard of, yet they had already part studied it whilst in college.

Once people get to university they realise they don’t actually have that greater interest in the course they’ve picked, and discover courses that are much more appealing which they didn’t know existed.

The director of Supporting Professionalism in Admissions, Janet Graham, said she would like to see “more emphasis on guiding students in the selection process”. Maybe 6th forms and colleges should also be doing more to ensure potential students are informed of the wide variety of courses that are out there.

Obviously, it is encouraged that people should thoroughly research their five choices of courses before applying for universities, and attending open days does help, but how can 17 and 18 year olds know for certain that the course really is right for them. Picking one specific subject to study in detail (or two if it’s a joint course) is a lot different from picking 4 A level subjects.

There are also a number of other factors that affect a student’s circumstances from staying at their university or on a particular course, for example “other students may face the closure of their course or institution” which is frankly out of the student’s hands and not their problem. 

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills acknowledges “a student may come to realise that their chosen institution is no longer the best match for them.

“A competitive and dynamic higher education sector needs students who actively challenge universities to provide teaching excellence and value for money.”

The barriers identified as stopping or preventing students from switching courses or universities include: “lack of information” where students may not realise they are able to switch, and “inertia” where students become tolerant of poor quality teaching, or drop out, because they are faced with restrictions such as signing a tenancy agreement for a house.

A third issue identified by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is that “credits are not a universal currency”. They say: “credits gained for a course at one institution are not necessarily equivalent to those at another”, which is something that needs to be changed. Why this is such a difficult issue to sort is that all courses are different. Even if some courses bare the same name, the content that is taught can depend on the experience and specialities of the lecturers.

What can universitites do better?

There was a suggestion made that universities could advertise second and third year places in a similar way they do for clearing at the moment.

“If students wanted to switch, it would be helpful for them to see which universities and courses might be willing to take them,” says Helen Thorne, UCAS’s director of external relations.

Emphasis placed on how well a student’s first year goes shouldn’t be a strict indicator however when allowing a student to transfer courses. A number of people’s first years do not count towards their final degree mark, with the first year used to get everyone’s ability on the course up to the same level. First year is also a test run to see if university really is right for the student. University could well be right for them, but the course may not. A bad grade in the first year of Law does not necessarily equal a bad grade when transferring to English Literature.

However, the Higher Education and Research Bill is already starting to help students out with the establishing of the Office for Students, a single regulation for the Higher Education sector.

The Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson said: “By creating the Office for Students, we will put student choice, teaching quality and social mobility at the top of the agenda in higher education.”

If you’re thinking of changing course of institution, or even re-entering university after time out, the main thing is nothing is written in stone, and you’re definitely not alone in having doubts. It’s a pretty common issue for students, and there is probably at least one person on each course who has these doubts. Remember it’s your money and your future so you have every right to have a say in it.