2010: learning the hard way

Student life is changing fast. Gone are the days of small seminar groups and the luxury of full grants. Fran Abrams examines the world awaiting this year's freshers and (below) provides an alarming glimpse of a university of the future
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The race is on. With the first official lists of available university places released, thousands of students will spend today on the telephone. But what will they find when they achieve their dream of a place in academia? The university system that their parents knew has long since gone, and the pace of change has not slowed down.

In the past 10 years the proportion of 18 year-olds going to university has risen from one in five to almost one in three. At the same time thousands of adults have returned to catch up on the education they missed in their youth.

Politicians of all parties are now convinced that graduates must repay their debt to society. The Government has cut university funding by five per cent this year and will cut grants for maintenance and buildings by 50 per cent over three years.

Not for this year's undergraduates the luxuries of small, intense discussions with lecturers, of full grants, or of emerging with a degree and not a penny to repay. Already they must take out state loans for part of their living expenses, and grants are dwindling fast. Within the next five years they are likely to disappear altogether and universities will probably start to charge fees.

This year's freshers will notice other changes since their parents' days at university:

Seminar groups used to number six or eight; now there is one lecturer to every 16 students and some students find themselves holding "discussions" in groups of up to 60.

With the A-level pass rate going up by between one and two per cent a year, today's students are better qualified. They can also expect to receive better degrees - the number of firsts and 2:1s is also going up.

More and more students are choosing to live at home with their parents, or even with their husbands or wives, and the proportion staying on or near campuses has decreased.

More and more students are forced to work to support themselves, not just in the holidays but for up to 30 hours per week during term-time as well.

A divide is opening up between elite research universities, which remain well-funded and attract the best students, and the teaching universities, which do their best with the rest.

Despite these changes, many of today's students will still enjoy the three years of easy maturation away from home which have been the privilege of undergraduates for the past 50 years. But the civic universities were set up in the last century to serve their local communities, and they may now return to that role.

So what will the next generation of students find in 15 years' time? One thing is certain: the pace of change will not slow down.

The proportion of students over 21 when they start university - now standing at more than 30 per cent - cannot continue to grow without reaching saturation point. The total number of students, now frozen at about a million, is unlikely to expand again in the current funding climate. But other trends will continue to escalate:

Students, already forced to earn a living, will take more time out to pay off debts and will take longer to finish their degrees.

More will go to regional universities near their homes.

The current review of higher education under Sir Ron Dearing will increase the number of purely vocational courses, beating pure academic courses into a retreat.

Company sponsorship of courses will continue to become more down-to- earth, with local employers sponsoring degree courses and with universities providing short refresher courses for these firms' staff.

Information technology will continue to take over from lecturers, who will become increasingly scarce.

Further education, traditionally for 16-19 year-olds, will merge with the university system.

If you thought higher education in 1996 was becoming a rat race, a glimpse of life in a typical British university, circa 2010, will make you shudder.