Minister: students ‘taken advantage of’ on ‘dumbed down’ degrees

Michelle Donelan says there has been ‘too much focus on getting students through the door’ in England

七月 1, 2020
Michelle Donelan

English universities have been accused by a minister of “tak[ing] advantage of” students from deprived backgrounds who they enrolled on “dumb[ed] down” courses.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister in the Westminster government, said that higher education access initiatives had “let down too many people” in the past decade-and-a-half, with “too much focus on getting students through the door, and not enough focus on how many drop out, or how many go on to graduate jobs”.

Speaking at the annual summit of the National Education Opportunities Network, which was held virtually, Ms Donelan said that too many students “have been misled by the expansion of popular sounding courses” with what she described as poor standards and “no real demand from the labour market”.

“Quite frankly, our young people have been taken advantage of – particularly those without a family history of going to university. Instead some have been left with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off in any sense,” the minister said.

“And too many universities have felt pressured to dumb down – either when admitting students, or in the standards of their courses. We have seen this with grade inflation and it has to stop.

“We need to end the system of arbitrary targets that are not focused on the individual student’s needs and goals. And let’s be clear – we help disadvantaged students by driving up standards, not by levelling down.”

Ms Donelan said that universities should focus on helping disadvantaged students to complete their courses, and on “going the extra mile to raise standards and aspirations in schools”. This could be through sponsoring schools, “supporting a robust curriculum” or running summer camps, said the minister, who highlighted the success of mathematics-focused schools run by King’s College London and the University of Exeter.

Ms Donelan also said that social mobility “isn’t about getting more people into university”, a day after prime minister Boris Johnson indicated in the speech that supporting further education colleges would be a key focus of the government’s post-coronavirus economic plans.

“For decades we have been recruiting too many young people on to courses that do nothing to improve their life chances or help with their career goals,” she said.

“True social mobility is about getting people to choose the path that will lead to their desired destination and enabling them to complete that path. True social mobility is when we put students and their needs and career ambitions first, be that in HE, FE or apprenticeships.”

The minister concluded by stating that she was calling for “a new era on access and participation: one based on raising standards, not on dumbing down; on putting prospective students and their ambitions and their needs first; on results and impact, not on box ticking and marketing; and on delivering graduates into jobs that really will transform their lives”.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said that Ms Donelan “appears to be trying to turn some students off university by saying it is expensive and substandard”, warning that an “obsession” with graduate earnings as a measure of success “suggests ignorance about the real value of education”.

“For the minister to say students have been left indebted and let down is quite remarkable when the Conservatives are responsible for increasing tuition fee debt and letting the private sector squeeze more and more money out of higher education,” Dr Grady said. 

“The government continues to attempt to pick artificial ‘winners’ in the market it has created, denigrating certain courses and the institutions that offer them without any evidence for doing so.”

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (9)

"Dumbed down degrees", no mention of 'grievance studies' courses though?
Finally, this has been recognised. In my first two jobs at institutions that shall, of course, remain nameless I could not believe what was happening. One of my first undergraduate project students subsequently served me at the till of a DIY store. Joining from commerce, I was shocked that public money was being used to waste the time of students, who then took non-graduate jobs that they could have started 3-4 years earlier. At least in those days (the early 90s), there were no loans but now it is even worse since students may end up in the same non-graduate roles but with large debts that will most likely eventually be written off at more cost to the taxpayer. The development of vocational education is essential to give all students an appropriate route into positive futures.
It was, and still is, a means for keeping the NEATS stats and youth unemployment in general down, many employers don't want to take on young people direct from school/FE so a few years of maturing helps employers, it helps the Government in other ways too, student debt is similar to the Thatcher council house sales scheme, once loaded with debt people will often work for whatever pay they can get to service that debt, going on strike for better pay is almost unheard of now...
I support the increase of standards. Successive Tory governments have increased competition between universities and made us fight for every student we can get. Once they are there, sub-par students drag down the quality, and the few good students feel alienated. It's a downward spiral. Corona has even increased this trend. The least capable students (poor them for being lured into this!) also complain the most because they are trying to resist any high standards because they wouldn't be able to pass. So it's a race to the bottom. Combine this with the current cancel culture, the use of student evaluations for promotions and hiring, and the need to keep the social media accounts of the University clean from any complaints for marketing purposes to lure even more students in, then nobody really has any incentives to keep the standards up. You ask students to do something, you lose. My Department Head told me literally that our Department has given up on teaching standards and we now focus on research because we can't resist the trend towards the bottom. It really is time to do something about it, but it needs to come from the very top, and nobody will support it because no academic wants to lose their job, which would be more likely if head count wasn't the primary goal anymore. It's such a sad development, and the Tories basically f*cked this all up in the first place with their tuition fees, which then provided universities with the wrong incentives.
The long march through the institutions is a Marxist concept formulated in 1967 by the West German student movement leader Rudi Dutschke, however it's origins also involve Antonio Gramsci a neo-Marxist who realised the old adage 'slowly slowly catchy monkey' could also be applied to Communist infiltration. Then with Tony Bliar in power the opening up of Universities required for his 50% plus indoctrination centre attendance plan to work we have the foundation of this mess. The Tories are not innocent, realising it had advantages having fewer on the dole, and became complicit in this as well. But the whole thing rests upon a Marxist foundation, the same foundation that in other countries has trained activists and organisers who later become enforcers and even executioners after sterilising history to fit their narrative. University trained useful idiots are always welcome, hence the dumbing down, but academics had better beware denouncement still happens and whilst cancel culture may have replaced the gulag the decline of Academic standards is just as certain under any of the existing political parties and the Neo-Marxists who exercise control over them and the Universities.
I was very pleased to see what Michelle Donelan said and I agree with her. For over 5 years I have also campaigned against further expansion of undergraduate and post graduate degrees and the Universities that deliver them. We already have more than we need and public money could be better used to improve social mobility by improving education from the age of 3 for those born into disadvantaged communities. Many Universities seem to have lost the plot and merely want to maintain income and jobs for those they employ rather than focus on the needs of their students and providing benefit to the communities where they are located.
"Many Universities seem to have lost the plot and merely want to maintain income and jobs for those they employ" I'd make that 'for those that run them at the top level' those lower down the greasy pole teaching etc are all too soon sacrificed when the going gets tough. I suspect many Uni staff have had the letter/e-mail warning of whats to come, no travel, no promotion, no sabbaticals, reduced hours, unpaid career breaks, severance etc... BOHICA!
As the recipient of one of these degrees (Criminology and Sociology) from one of these universities, I wholeheartedly agree that the universities are failing not only the students, but as a result, society itself. Much of the course material was centred around neo-Marxist critiques of modern institutions (exclusing the universities, or course). My degree has left me in debt, with no immediate access to graduate level jobs specific to my field of study. I must take my own portion of the responsibility, after all I made the decision to partake in the course. But the fact that the courses all cost around the same amount, there is an implication that the courses are offered equally valuable. They aren't. If I could go back and do it all over I would study something in the STEM fields. Right now I feel like handing my degree back the the university.
At long last - some common sense. The figure of 50% at University was a dangerous aberration and abundantly clear that this was a contradiction to maintaining high educational standards: 50% of people are not University educatable. The greatest loss in all this, is the tremendous (and unappreciated) effort of academics. As non-academics have infiltrated the sector and risen to positions of power, life for the academic has become harder and harder. A reckoning had to take place but I wonder who will bear the brunt... the politicians who mandated these regulations, the non-academics who have insist on their implementation.... or the academics? My guess is the latter.

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