The strength of UK higher education is underpinned by what Sir David Watson calls its “controlled reputational range”: the consistency of standards that provides a secure foundation for UK degrees.
This consistency reflects the maturity of the sector, but it is not without its challenges.
Sir David, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, identified two particular threats in a lecture last month: the government’s attempts to ease the path for alternative providers, and the “divisive behaviour of the sector itself, especially through the mission groups”.
The wider effect of these divisions is illustrated in a story told by a vice-chancellor whose son is nearing the end of his degree at a well-respected university (formerly of the 1994 Group).
Data suggest that about one in six UK universities awards significantly more firsts and 2:1s than would be expected, while 18 award fewer
While applying for a graduate job with a blue-chip company, the student found that the drop-down menu for “Place of study” consisted of the 24 members of the Russell Group, plus the dreaded catch-all: “Other”. He was in little doubt where applications submitted under “Other” would end up.
This crude sifting of applications – a modern version of the milk round’s selective tour of graduate recruitment fairs – is mirrored by the use of the 2:1 classification as another standard cut-off point by recruiters.
And while it would be silly to rate a degree’s worth simply on the value ascribed by an HR officer, this is the sort of thing that raises questions for students about consistency between universities. The question of degree comparability has long dogged universities and is one they have been reluctant to tackle head-on.
The most recent of a series of studies on student workloads carried out by the Higher Education Policy Institute reinforced the perception of variation across the sector.
Hepi found that in medicine and dentistry, for example, students at the hardest-working university put in an average of 49.8 hours a week, compared with 32.7 hours at the university with the lowest workloads (the figures include timetabled and private study).
The figures in other disciplines were as follows: business and administration, 39.2 and 15.9 hours; history and philosophy, 44.6 and 19.3 hours; and biological sciences, 46.3 and 20.2 hours.
Hepi also found that different subjects had very different average workloads, ranging from 40 hours a week for architecture, building and planning to 23 hours for mass communications.
This week, we report on further warning signs, this time in figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which suggest that about one in six UK universities awards significantly more firsts and 2:1s than would be expected, based on students’ school qualifications, social background, region and school type, gender, ethnicity and subject, while 18 award fewer.
There are reasons for the sector’s reluctance to address questions of comparability, and achieving identical standards in degrees across such a large sector is probably impossible.
But like gold bullion in a vault, guarding an appropriate, sector-wide quality range is vital for all in higher education, not just one group or another – it’s what underpins the enduring value of a UK degree, and makes it a currency that’s accepted worldwide.