Letter: Easy access

July 13, 2001

If only universities were like community colleges, say the Open University pundits ("Experts on access lay blame on campuses", THES , July 6), then we could easily solve the widening participation problem. No doubt if we did not set such hard examinations, then we would not need to fail students and we could easily solve the dropout problem.

Making admission to, and progression through, universities easier will not make life easier. Not long ago a university education was seen as an easy option by the "self-made" men of the Thatcher era who claimed to have graduated from the school of hard knocks. Now we are told a university education is too difficult.

So should we make it easier? Will it matter if overseas students no longer come here because our universities cannot compete with those in other countries? Will it matter if we slide towards third-world status because we do not have doctors, lawyers and engineers capable of dealing with the modern world?

If the government were really interested in widening access, there would be grants and no fees. Instead, universities have been given the task of solving an undoubtedly important but largely unsolvable problem as a means of diverting attention away from the more serious issue of the gross underfunding of higher education. And it works.

It is also a stick with which to beat the universities when they fail to meet the quotas surreptitiously slipped into this debate. "You didn't do what we asked, so you can't have more cash."

There is one more effect. Universities expanded capacity in anticipation of increased numbers. Now the students are not appearing and staff are being shed, civil servants can continue to peddle the same advice that has bedevilled us for decades: "There's no problem with recruitment and retention in universities, minister, so there's no need to raise their salary levels."

Roland Ibbett
University of Edinburgh

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