Leader: Effective sector comes at a cost

March 23, 2001

The United Kingdom is better than many industrialised countries at turning university entrants into graduates. The select committee report on student retention finds that only Japan does better. But dropout rates approaching 20 per cent are still a waste of money and people.

MPs are right to stress that the emphasis should be on more effective universities, not ones with lower standards. And it is hard not to applaud their conclusion that today's university staff are hardly in a position to be effective mentors for troubled students. They have their own insecure employment contracts and low pay to worry about. Even staff with steady jobs have to deal with intrusions such as the research assessment exercise and quality assessments.

As Roderick Floud points out, his university was recently involved in 11 different forms of assessment at once. This adds weight to the suggestion that research and teaching should be assessed less intrusively and perhaps in a single bite, rather than each requiring its own pattern of visits, documents and panels to perform and read them.

Supporting students properly is costly. The committee warns against renewed university expansion unless the student places it creates are fully funded. It also lays responsibilities at the door of universities and staff, saying that teaching and student support need to be taken more seriously and to have more prestige. So, too, should the task of teaching first-year students, who tend to see the most recently appointed lecturer rather than the head of department.

Students might also gain from many of the committee's ideas, including post-qualification university admission. This is a large topic that the committee might usefully revisit soon. The big financial problems of debt and debt aversion are still under-researched and more needs to be known. But the correlation between the end of grants and the increased tendency of students to stay at home is one indicator that unconditional means-tested grants are likely to have a role in better retention of happier students.

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