Employers and others increasingly complain about the calibre of many
graduates, not just in their chosen specialities – but in the basics, such as
standards of written English and the work ethic. They also complain about
professional courses offering too much theory and too little practice. Granted
that employability need not be the sole criterion of educational success, the
value of a British university education does not seem to have increased with the
numbers admitted. So long as selection is according to qualifications and
potential, rather than ability to pay, fewer students should mean better.
Universities will doubtless complain that fewer students would mean that
each has to pay more – but that is only true if the size of departments and
multiplicity of courses on offer remain the same. After a period of such rapid
expansion, it is now time to scythe through duplication and foster a few centres
of excellence. There may also be an argument for developing a two-tier system on
the US model, with four-year courses for some, giving students a first year to
decide where their aptitude lies, and two-year courses for others.
Much of the recent university expansion reflects a dubious "academicisation" of skills, as nursing, accountancy and, yes, journalism have become more and more graduate professions. Reversing this trend, far from lowering standards, could have the effect of producing a workforce that is actually better – more quickly, more
cheaply, and more appropriately – trained.
The Government may hope that higher fees will lead to more of a "market" in courses, with students "shopping around" for a degree that will pay off and universities forced to adapt what they offer accordingly. Perhaps that will happen. In the short term, though, the risk is of graduates weighed down by debt for the sake of degrees worth no more than A-levels. Rather than wait for the market to cut student numbers, the universities should take the initiative and revert to their traditional pursuit of academic excellence. This is still what universities are for.
Hallelujah. At last someone has articulated the case for a smaller, but better higher education sector - and astonishingly it is someone from the left. I really hope this starts a much bigger debate, because it is one which needs to be had. This year 479,000 students commenced university degrees - a 10% rise on 2006. Do we really, in our heart of hearts, believe that there are 479,000 capable of doing a university degree each year? Many have been brainwashed into thinking that unless they go to university they have failed in life. That's ridiculous of course, but it's easy to see why they think that. The trouble is that 25% of them will fall by the wayside during their courses, and drop out once they realise the awful truth. And it is then that they really will feel failures. Most will pick themselves up and dust themselves down but some will never recover from the experience. We are being grossly unfair on a huge number of 18 year olds by pretending that a university education is the be all and end all. It isn't.
In no way am I suggesting we go back to the days when I did my degree in the early 1980s when only 14% or so went to university. But nor do I think 43% should go unless they have the academic ability to do so. What a shame the old polytechnics felt they had to transmogrify themselves into universities. What a pity we have lost much of our technical education colleges and that 18 year olds no longer get the vocational opportunities they once had. What the government needs to do now is to provide a proper alternative to universities, an educational qualification which will be worth the paper it's written on and valued by employers - and is better than getting a bad degree in a third class university.
Read Mary Dejevsky's full article HERE.