Alan Ryan

September 3, 2004

'You may get muddled if you put the same label on different things and can't remember which is which, and we have now encountered that problem'

The Government needs to be less concerned about what courses are called and more concerned about what they achieve

We have just sent acceptance letters to students who have got the grades they needed to meet the offers made last December. They are a tremendous group of energetic, talented and well-taught young people. They will flourish - at any rate, something over 98 per cent of them will flourish - and will, mostly, go on to have interesting and useful careers. It will be a treat to have them with us.

The pleasure is rather diminished by thinking how thin an icing on the social cake they are. Whatever their social background, their future is (barring accident) assured. You can come from a family that is all but destitute but, given the energy, ambition, intelligence and training your three or four As at A level reflect, you will thrive. Watching my peers at Christ's Hospital 50 years ago, half of whom had been orphaned in the Second World War, and half of whom had come in on the 11-plus from hard-up families, it was clear what the ingredients were. They are still the same.

But the present-day equivalents of my peers who went off into the professions worry me. When lawyers and accountants, practitioners at Lloyds, stockbrokers and the like expected to begin work at 16 or 18, starting as clerks, going on to take articles and slowly joining the adult business world, there was an alternative route to the route taken by a small academic minority. Christ's Hospital was a device for helping the deserving but hard-up to achieve what they could in ways that suited them, and the mix was about 80:20 vocational to academic. Now, 90 per cent go on to higher education, but the underlying distribution of tastes and talents is almost certainly much the same as it was.

There may be nothing wrong with keeping young people out of the workforce until they are 23; and there is certainly nothing wrong with calling vocational qualifications degrees. You can put any label you like on a qualification -which is why the fuss about teaching-only universities is snobbish nonsense. But you may get muddled if you put the same label on different things and can't remember which is which, and we have now encountered that problem.

Consider so-called surfing studies: their best defence is that it is good to have well-trained managers in the leisure industry rather than hope for the best with learning on the job. The bad defence is that non-numerate students learn a bit of physics. Conversely, the best defence of a physics degree at Imperial College London is that students learn a lot of very demanding physics; the bad defence is that they end up knowing enough maths to be an accountant. We'd do better if we had a clear view of the end product - excellent physicists, customer-friendly managers, whatever - and designed instruction around it.

We already have people - perhaps 30 per cent of the age group - who go into higher education for whom it is a dubious financial and academic bargain.

It will certainly not be a bargain when tuition fees come into force in 2006. For the economy as a whole, it is no better; wage differentials in favour of degree holders may hold up, but they do not reflect productivity gains, only a sifting process that consigns non-degree holders to poor jobs. An Oxford law degree is worth much more than £30,000 and three years out of the labour market; whether leisure management is worth anything like as much is doubtful.

Is there a moral? Whatever we call courses, we should pay attention to whether they produce people who like what they are doing and are good at it. And we shouldn't use three-year courses to do what we could do in two - eight brisk quarters are better and cheaper than nine lethargic trimesters.

One of the bad aspects of US tertiary education is the vice it shares with the British system of not having dedicated vocational education on the Scandinavian model; but even in the US, two years of vocationally oriented courses in a community college produce real skills, cost less than £500 a year in tuition fees and can - although they often don't - greatly enhance employability.

Government policy is incoherent, because the target for getting 50 per cent of young people into higher education eats into the pool of school-leavers who ought to be taking up modern apprenticeships - you can't, although the Government does, simultaneously suggest that any rational person should go to a university and that there is parity of esteem between vocational and academic training. And none of this touches on the question of what happens to the rest of the age group. So, three cheers for the high-achievers with their strings of A grades - and now can we turn to the problems of the submerged 10 per cent at the bottom?

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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