Our universities are in a first-class mess.
29th January, 2009
By Melanie McDonagh
The reassuring thing about university degrees is, by and large, how little they matter once you've got them. Most of us find that once you're in a job, hardly anyone will inquire about your qualifications. Indeed, now that half the population enters third-level education, there's practically a reverse glamour about not having a degree. Which is not to say that a university education doesn't count for anything. The three short years I spent as an undergraduate at Cambridge (actually, more like one and a half, excluding vacations) transformed me in all sorts of ways – far more than the time I spent getting a doctorate.
But since so many people are getting degrees, and quite a lot of effort is invested in earning them, it would be nice to have some idea what they're worth. With this in mind, the Commons innovation, universities and skills committee is investigating the universities. This week, some university vice-chancellors who appeared before it created a stir by suggesting that the old system of grading degrees with first, upper and lower seconds and the gentleman's degree, could be replaced by a kind of glorified end-of-term report.
Eighteen universities this year are awarding a Higher Education Achievement Report, a two-page report card, to their graduates, as well as a degree grade. By 2012, all universities will do so – regardless of whether directors of studies know their students well enough to fill in two pages.
It's all good for a row between traditionalists and modernists but what really matters isn't so much the grading system as the worth of the institution giving the grades. The real reason why the select committee is considering the question is that there's been an extraordinary amount of grade inflation in recent years, particularly from the former polytechnics.
As Phil Woolas MP, chairman of the committee, put it, the UK has "the most prestigious higher education system in the world, which earns the country billions of pounds a year … there are serious heads of department who are concerned that the quality of the degrees they are awarding do not match the quality of the students".
In other words, there are dud institutions giving dud degrees to dud students. And that has everything to do with the fact that polytechnics, which used to have a distinct identity, were turned into universities (by the Tories), and vocational subjects have been awarded university degrees (by Labour).
The result, oddly enough, has been to diminish the value of all of them.
But consider Mr Woolas's priorities: universities were once places of learning, teaching and research; now they're about earning the country billions of pounds a year.
In fact, the problem of the universities revolves around money, though it doesn't help that they've been conscripted to advance the Government's equality agenda as well. If you ask heads of department about grade inflation, they complain of being told by management that they either award more good degrees or have their funding cut because they have not kept pace with competing universities. University bureaucracies are supine in the face of government pressure.
To pay for an expanding student body, universities must take in ever greater numbers of overseas students, who pay three times as much as the domestic sort. Some raise the game, but many can hardly write English. They want some bang for their buck, a decent take-home degree – but in terms of tuition and individual attention, they're short-changed.
I said at the start that most degrees matter less than most people think. Just as well really.
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