Top-up fees and useless degrees
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).
Top-up fees are being furiously debated by those who seem more concerned with the price of higher education than with its value. There are bigger issues to discuss. What can it matter whether universities are financed by tuition fees or a graduate tax when, in educational terms, many degrees are essentially worthless?
Many of us receive spam e-mails everyday from bogus colleges, advising that our university degrees are apparently ‘waiting to be collected now – just write in’. We scoff at the notion that anybody would be taken in by such scams. But they are not so far removed from what is happening at some British universities. When it comes to filling degree courses, their message to prospective students is ‘apply, and it shall be given’.
New Labour has continued where the Tories left off expanding higher education. The target is to get 50 per cent of young people into university. But what sort of universities are they being crammed into? First, the old polytechnics were rebranded as universities – a process of levelling-down that has really meant many old universities becoming polys in all but name.
Now the Government says that almost any institution teaching students can claim the title ‘university’. Whatever it says on the label, many universities may soon be de facto further education colleges.
Universities have adopted a bums-on-seats attitude, lowering entry standards and making courses easier in order to meet their recruitment targets.
Students are often treated as valued customers to be catered for rather than as, well, students who need to be stretched and tested. Twenty-five years ago my generation felt under pressure to prove ourselves to the university of our choice. Now, with the exception of a few top institutions, it is more often the universities that feel pressured to sell themselves to potential students who can pick and choose.
Universities produce glossy sales bumph making exaggerated claims to entice their target audience; one had to pay £30,000 in compensation last year to a student who protested that his miserable educational experience was not as advertised in the brochure.
It is official policy to get people into university even if they don’t want to go. For Universities UK, the higher education authority, a ‘key issue now is attracting people with no background of (or current aspirations to) study in HE’. For students who do not even have any aspirations to study, university can have little meaning. They can walk on to a course, where little will be asked of them and they will find it hard to fail. If their time at university is reduced to the equivalent of three empty ‘gap’ years on a soulless campus, it is little wonder that so many take their bums off the overcrowded lecture theatre seats for good. Dropout rates at some new universities now touch 40 per cent.
Into this mess the Government has dropped its proposal for top-up fees, to finance further university expansion. This has been opposed by everybody from the Tories to the Socialist Workers Party (further evidence that even the highly educated have trouble telling their Left from their Right these days). But as one who thinks of himself as on the Left, though not of it, I can see one argument for tuition fees. They might make degree courses mean something more.
I was the first in my family to go to university, and want to see more people from ‘ordinary’ backgrounds given the opportunity to raise their horizons. But it is hard to see that happening while colleges are busy reinforcing the low expectations of unmotivated people, in an unwritten pact where they pretend to study for three years in return for a make-believe degree. By forcing people to make some sacrifice, fees might at least prove an artificial way to give more meaning to being a university student than the current charade.
To criticise the policy of expanding higher education at all costs is to invite the accusation of elitism. But if the Government wants more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university, it could stop fiddling with the system and start providing them with better schools, so that those who are motivated can get there on merit. Our universities should not be expected to help to cover up problems in our schools, by pretending that half of all youngsters have been educated to undergraduate standard.
We hear a lot about the terrible pressures that students are supposedly under these days. It seems to me that in educational terms most are not under nearly enough pressure, and are being flattered and patronised far too much for their own good or that of the universities.
There are worse things to take into adulthood than a student debt – such as a valueless degree, and an impoverished outlook on life.
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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