Degrees are not their business 1

December 6, 2002

If it is true that private companies are to be given degree-awarding powers so as to promote competition in higher education ("Go-ahead for corporate degrees", THES , November 29), then three issues arise.

First, competition already exists between institutions for domestic students and, internationally, for overseas students. The latter shows that UK universities are already highly successful in international competition.

Second, what is the problem to which competition is supposed to be the answer? UK universities already excel in research and in creating spin-offs, and years of quality inspections have shown only a few minor problems in teaching.

Third, how, in relation specifically to degree-awarding powers, will competition be conducted? Either the corporates will make standards as high as possible to give their product cachet - which is what the "elite" universities already do - or they will drop standards to attract customers - which means a diminution of quality.

In all the public sector areas where the market has been inappropriately promoted, from rail to A-level exam boards, we have seen disastrous service levels. In some, such as the public finance initiative, we have seen a lamentable waste of taxpayers' money. In others, such as individual learning accounts, we have seen corruption.

I understand the appeal of this idea to rightwing ideologues such as James Tooley, quoted in your report, but what, pragmatically, is the benefit to those who inhabit the real world? I can think of only one. Businesses habitually complain about unnecessary red tape, so it will be interesting indeed to see what they make of the Quality Assurance Agency. Then again, since business is now held to be the site of unique virtue, I expect they will be exempt.

Christopher Grey

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