Thursday, 7 April 2011

David Willetts I can solve your problems - don't cut funding, cut classes

Every day this week, another university has announced its intention of charging the new maximum tuition fee of €9000 per year. Oxford and Cambridge, naturally, were first, presumably because they're always on the look out for ways to dodge their quota on state school intakes. A long line of others followed; around two thirds of British universities have so far announced they will be charging the maximum possible fee under the new system. All have trotted out the same line - with the cuts being made to their funding, they *have* to charge the maximum rate to "maintain educational standards". For the most part, I suspect, this is probably true, although there are almost certainly some liberties being taken, not all universities are actually any good in the first place, on which more later.

The only way for an institution to avoid charging the full fee, it has been said, would be for it to cut class sizes. Of course, everyone recoils in horror at this idea, with a third of all applicants already missing out on a place at university this year, so we're back to full fees again. Thing is, cutting class sizes isn't a bad idea. I wouldn't just cut university places - I'd cut universities.

The over expansion of certain areas of higher education is something that's been bothering me for years, and I always meant to write about it, even before the fees increase. I've possibly been putting it off because I fear holding this opinion is going to make me unpopular, but screw it - I'm right and Tony Blair was wrong; not everyone needs to go to university. I know the statement and the following policies were made with the best intentions - graduates (at least at that time) tended to out-earn non-graduates, due to having better job prospects. All well and good, although you have to question how much of this is also down to the fact that by and large, graduates are still from wealthier families who will always have a greater level of social mobility. But, noble as the end is, the means has actually managed to destroy it.

There is now literally no point in having a degree because EVERYONE has one. Yes, time was, having a degree opened up a whole new world of job opportunities; now walking into an interview and saying "look at me, I have a degree!" improves your chances about as much as walking in shouting "I have a puppy!". Most large cities such as Birmingham or Manchester have three universities, small-to medium sized cities have at least two and even shitty little nowhere towns have one these days - I think when I lost faith in the system entirely was when I was introduced to the University of Basildon.

It's not just quantity that devalues degrees, but quality. To meet expectations that every young person should go to university, regardless of academic ability, a lot of the new universities that sprang up had incredibly low grade requirements. I remember when I was applying to uni there was a big scandal involving South Bank University as it had been revealed in an undercover sting operation that they were offering places on the condition the candidate achieved three Es, sometimes not even requiring them to pass any A Levels at all. Back then it was a massive scandal, now, that's normal. So you end up with universities full of people aren't really suited to it, staffed by unenthusiastic lecturers (lets face it, teachers will always prefer teaching the brighter kids to the no-hopers), with lower pass requirements because otherwise the majority of the students would fail anyway and it'd all be an exercise in futility. So having a degree no longer has any cache in terms of setting you apart from other candidates on the job market, and it no longer implies that you're particularly intelligent and/or well-educated. I don't mean to sound snobby here, by the way, if someone really wants to go to university but doesn't have the grades, there should always be a way, be it resits, taking a foundation course or proving your ambition with extra-curricular activities. Universities should and do have some discretion on individual cases. But the problem we have now with the whole "everyone must go to university" drive is that people who would normally not even want to go to university drift into it blindly because the presumption now is that going to university is normal and not going is not.

I think somewhere along the line as well we're having problems with the fact that university is no longer primarily seen in some quarters as about education, but as a "life experience". Remember last year, maybe the year before when the idea of condensing degree courses into two years was mooted briefly and everyone went mental? Everybody was up in arms over the fact that if students had more classes during the week it would impact on the amount of time they could spend socialising, and they would not be able to enjoy "the university experience". What the actual? Even when I was a student I wondered what I was supposed to do with 30 free hours a week and three months off over summer. I'm not a joyless harridan opposed to having fun, but dude - you signed up for an education, not a three year party. And if I can work 37.5 hours a week and still have as rad a social life as I do, I think you can manage if your contact hours go up from seven to 14.

But, dear readers, I do not present you only with a problem, I present you with a solution. David Willetts, take note, I'm going to save your ass here:

1.) Don't cut funding, cut classes. I'd question whether every city in the UK needs two universities or even one (can't Bognor Regis just be a holiday resort?) but they certainly don't need three. Get rid of the excuses for learning institutions whose only entry requirement is a pulse.

2.) Bring back vocational training and apprenticeships. I want to reduce university numbers, I don't want to throw people on the scrapheap of life. Not everyone may be suited to university but that doesn't mean they're not suited to further education - there should be a variety of educational options on offer to school leavers.

3.) Part two of this - scrap ridiculous academic requirements for entry level jobs. Because everyone has a degree now, employers are jumping on the bandwagon. It is being brought to my attention more and more recently that entry level office jobs - office junior, admin assistant, receptionist etc - are seeking applicants "educated to university level and above only". I saw an advert for a temporary receptionist for a two week (two week!) contract last week and it specified graduate applicants only. I'll level with you - I have far more experience working reception desks than I care to think about, and at no point did I need to draw on my extensive knowledge of 17th century poetry or the fall of empires post 1945. You know how when you're a kid, say five or six, and your parents teach you how to answer the phone; pick up receiver and say hello? Yeah. That's all you need. There's something uniquely depressing about the realisation that for the majority of your working life your job could have been done by a five-year-old. Thank goodness they're all in school. Employers - stop it.

4.) If you have to raise fees, raise them for masters degrees. A consequence of everybody pursuing undergraduate degrees is that in the last five years, the number of people taking masters degrees has exploded. When I graduated, I knew two people who went on to do masters degrees; one was a research scientist, the other had done a generalised humanities degree and was now specialising in the field that she wanted to work in. Pretty normal. But now, because ev-ery-one has a bachelors degree, ev-ery-one now does a masters degree, in a desperate attempt to put something on their CV that marks them out; and a tragic number of people doing MAs and MSCs are the "university experience" enthusiasts of earlier, who just want to defer getting a job for another 9 months. I know of far too many people doing masters degrees who have no regard for their subject, but are merely pursuing a higher degree because it's virtually intertwined with a bachelors degree now, so customary has it become, or because they view it as an excuse to drink more for longer. And it's not stopping there - I'm pretty sure it used to be unusual to know more than one person doing a PhD; I know seven. How long before it becomes necessary to have a PhD to get an office admin job? Keep undergraduate fees at the current level, raise fees for unnecessary masters courses to make up the shortfall. Again, I'm not anti further degrees, I still want to do one myself, although that's almost entirely because our current climate forcing all graduates to do one makes me feel thick as hell for not having one, even though I have a professional qualification that was actually harder; I'm anti it being essentially compulsory and treated so flippantly.

So, there you go. You might hate me, but my method would work, and no one would have to pay €9000 a year.

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