It is ten days after the A level results were published and some universities are now getting desperate. According to this morning’s Sunday Times a reporter posing as a sixth former with two E’s was offered a place on law and engineering courses at Bedfordshire University. Leeds Metropolitan University offered a place on an architecture course for similarly low grades, and Trinity St David’s (where!?!) said the reporter could take their pick of courses.
Back in 2000, when I was working as a senior manager at a London university, I wrote a piece for a fledgling think tank on the future of British higher education. I said then that the quality of teaching and research in some higher education institutions was distinctly dubious, making the academic validity of their degrees questionable at best. Over the course of the last decade or so, I believe the situation has got far worse.
The government’s decision to allow universities to charge fees of up to £9,000 per annum for undergraduate degrees and to phase out teaching grants (with the limited exception focused on priority areas where tuition fees alone may not meet all costs), has changed the market for higher education significantly. This has been exacerbated by the effective removal over the last two years of the undergraduate recruitment cap once imposed by the Funding Councils, meaning that in 2013 universities can now offer places to as many students with grades ABB+ as they think they can accommodate, without breaching their student number restriction.
The creation of, in effect, a free market in university places will likely mean that popular and prestigious institutions will be able to take as many well qualified candidates as they wish – one only hopes that they can maintain teaching (and research) quality. If they can, then good luck to them.
What concerns me more is the impact this has on the other institutions, frequently former polytechnics and institutes of higher education. This part of the HE sector grew enormously in the late 1990s and early 2000s, after the removal of the binary divide and the arrival of John Major’s and Tony Blair’s agenda of mass entry to university. They went from being often small specialist providers of say technical or teacher training to delivering a full programme of non-medical and non-veterinary degrees.
This growth in university teaching and the establishment of new academic departments to cover the broader range of disciplines was not, however, generally supported by a matched development of research to provide an underpinning knowledge base. As a consequence, many of the lecturers in these new departments are no more than souped-up classroom teachers and in many cases, institutions are utilising various new technologies in order to deal with their increased student numbers, resulting in much reduced contact time between tutors and students.
One therefore questions the value of the education provided by these institutions and thus their credibility to hold the title university. Does a degree awarded by a body where the lecturers and tutors undertake little or no research and where much of the teaching relies upon non-traditional methods and lack of much (if any) direct interaction between the teacher and the taught really carry the same value as one from a more traditional institution? (I expressly exclude the Open University from this question, due to its long standing high academic standing in both teaching and research).
My regret is that this has become a numbers game. From the government’s perspective, it is about how many young people can be kept out of the NEET (not in employment, education, or training) statistics, and from the universities’ perspective it is can they recruit enough students to keep the institutions financially viable.
But what about the students themselves? What value do they get from their university education? Is it fair on them to keep on this annual rigmarole where the less well known and less good quality institutions chase around after anyone with a pulse and two Es (though the pulse may not be mandatory!) Surely it would be better to accept that some people aren’t suited to continue in education, rather than offering them false hope and a valueless certificate after three years of substandard teaching.
My view is that we need a radical overhaul of British higher education. University status should be dependent upon high quality externally assessed teaching and research. Institutions should concentrate on the subjects they are good at and not simply what is currently popular, especially if they don’t have genuine expertise to back up their teaching programmes.
In some cases, it may be better if institutions which have a strong track record in teaching vocational and technical trades, but no real strength in academic subjects ceased to be known as universities and that the government established a new higher level vocational and technical award which employers could recognise as equivalent to an undergraduate degree.
It may be, however, that some institutions will never cut it as universities or vocational and technical colleges (I can think of one or two that fall into that category). Where that is the case, we should not be afraid to let them fail and close, for it is in no one’s interest to allow an organisation to continue to offer qualifications not worth the paper they’re printed on. It cheats the students, the taxpayer, employers, and society. It is time to stop conning students with worthless degrees. It’s is time to make higher education more honest.