Leader: Academics in no doubt over price of mass system

May 23, 2003

Some apparently mixed messages have emerged from our teaching poll. Almost 60 per cent of academics believe that courses have been "dumbed down" so that ill-prepared students can cope; yet more would approve than disapprove of their university taking state-school candidates on lower grades than those from the independent sector. Three-quarters have already adapted their teaching to cater for more mixed groups, but almost as many believe that professional training should be a condition of employment and promotion. Yet the findings are not as contradictory as they might seem.

The poll suggests that academics are realistic about the demands of mass higher education. They are not naive enough to pretend that a third of school-leavers will find it as easy to adapt to traditional degree courses as did their more highly selected predecessors. But most believe that the shortcomings of the system demand greater investment and adaptability, rather than an attempt to turn the clock back Tory-style. There are limits - not many relish the prospect of being on call for students outside regular hours - but most are willing to play their part in serving a new clientele.

What those responding to our poll will not tolerate is a downgrading of their role as rounded academics: the 70 per cent strongly opposed to the proposal that most university teachers should give up research was the most united group of all. Almost as many think students are being short-changed by large classes and a worsening of staffing levels. They know better than anyone that poorly qualified students need more attention, not less. The lesson for ministers from the poll is that there is support for mass higher education, warts and all, among those who see it at first hand. But this cannot be taken for granted indefinitely if the concessions are all one way.

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