Leader: Buy into a vision for expansion

If society believes a university education is important, it must find ways to fund it to enable all abilities to reach the right level

October 23, 2008

Universities are being pulled in many ways. Mass expansion has increased overall numbers, widening participation requires increased involvement from underrepresented groups, and employers are demanding a bigger say in degrees. The research assessment exercise puts academics under pressure to publish; meanwhile, the National Student Survey and demands from fee-paying students put academics under pressure to deliver more contact time.

Within this, degree classifications and standards, admissions targets and retention rates have all come in for criticism in recent times. So what is happening in higher education?

It is true that the number of first-class degrees awarded by universities has risen by 50 per cent over the past decade. This has led to accusations of dumbing down. But is that really fair?

We conducted an online survey in an attempt to find out what academics themselves thought was going on. Some 70 per cent disagreed with the assertion that the increase in 2:1 and first-class degrees was because of improving standards. They said that pressure from Whitehall for constant improvement led to distortion of the system.

But there are also undergraduates' changing expectations to consider - students now take a much more instrumental approach and know how to play the system. An emphasis on learning outcomes means they know what they are going to be assessed on and how, and it is human nature to focus on what you know you will be tested on and do no more. And for students, knowledge for its own sake seems to be relegated behind the desire for the "right degree".

Another factor is the need to retain students. Some 70 per cent of academics in our poll agreed that the need to retain students led to lower failure rates. If universities are penalised by having funds clawed back, then there is an obvious incentive to overlook shortcomings.

What few want to recognise, particularly the Government, is the simple fact that mass expansion, while undoubtedly a good thing, means that, with more students at university than ever before, there is huge variation in intelligence and attainment levels. There is a core that is as intelligent as students always have been, and there are probably a good few extra drawn in by improved access. But the remainder will be less intelligent. They might not be "knuckle-draggingly thick" (in the words of a Bournemouth academic who failed 14 students - and was backed by an employment tribunal for it) but they will be less able. We can pretend that they are all equal, but what happens is that we find ourselves in the ridiculous position that we are in today.

Of course it suits the Government to think this way, not just because there is an element of political correctness about it. Saying that some students are very intelligent smacks of elitism; but neither can you say some are less intelligent, because they may be offended. I am certainly not as clever as Stephen Hawking, but I will be in no way offended if anyone tells me so. No, it suits ministers because to acknowledge that there is variation is to admit that a large number of students will need extra help to bring them up to an appropriate level and develop their potential, which of course requires extra resources.

This is not a debate for this sector alone. We as a society have to decide not only what a university is for but what a university education is for and how important it is to all of us. If it is important, then we have to pay for it in one way or another. US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: "I like paying taxes. With them I buy civilisation." Perhaps he had a point.

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