Leader: Schoolyard rules in the Commons

If standards are vital, why is the select committee investigating dumbing down marked by spin, absenteeism and squabbling?

April 23, 2009

Truancy among schoolchildren is troubling, but not unusual. But when the truants are Members of Parliament who fail to turn up to the cross-party select committee examining allegations of falling standards at universities, it is both surprising and worrying.

The situation is so bad that the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee sometimes barely scrapes together enough members for a quorum, which in this case is just four. It is one of the smallest select committees, but it has the third-busiest agenda.

The problem of standards is the biggest facing this country's tertiary education system for many years. Claims of dumbing down have been numerous, vociferous and have come from many quarters. It is vital that the committee's inquiry examines their veracity and makes some recommendations: millions of students' futures depend on its findings, and the UK's reputation overseas is at stake.

To be fair, the committee's chairman, Phil Willis, does acknowledge that further and higher education, despite being not terribly sexy, is "incredibly important to this nation and we have to get it right". However, the behaviour of some of his colleagues would seem to belie these fine words.

Some of the excuses for not turning up to meetings hardly rise above the playground level. One MP who sat on the Science and Technology Committee has not attended since it became the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, "and never will", because she doesn't like the chairman. Another doesn't like how committee members are chosen and its chair is elected. Another thinks the committee is "so deeply boring I can't find words for it" and the chair "is an absolute duffer who thinks he's the bee's knees and you can't shut him up".

Only one Tory MP attends regularly, which is "astonishing", says fellow committee member Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat MP, when higher education is "a key area for the next general election". Those MPs who do attend take their roles seriously, Mr Willis says, but they carry a heavy burden.

Critics of standards have also taken their roles very seriously. When Mr Willis challenged them to "come out of the woodwork" and to "put up or shut up", a good number did and submitted evidence to the committee. Unfortunately, one academic who did come forward and wrote of alleged grade inflation on his course has now been removed from his institution's academic board - in effect for telling tales out of school.

On top of all this has been the unseemly squabbling. Vice-chancellors have accused the committee of "obsession", of running "a sustained campaign of scepticism", and have complained of being "roasted" while giving evidence. Committee members in turn have accused some university heads of giving them the "runaround" and of painting a picture "where every university is wonderful". In the circumstances, it is fortuitous that Mr Willis is a former headmaster and could be called upon to bang a few heads together if necessary.

But what is the lesson of this sorry affair? When on average only six members of this key select committee turn up to meetings and five places are empty because of a lack of enthusiasm from MPs and whips of all parties, perhaps it is not only university standards that should be facing intense scrutiny.

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