Letter: Eggheads versus battery hens (5)

February 2, 2001

In Student Focus (THES, January 19), Frank Furedi points to lowest common denominator undergraduate courses devised to meet access targets, while Diane Purkiss contrasts teaching for the bright and for typical students.

Ard Jongsma highlights the accountancy-driven pressures on staff to carry out hurried research and to dissipate its effectiveness through premature and salami publication (Research, THES, January 26).

The university sector is in crisis, driven by external demands and battered by successive governments to conform to the "needs of the economy". With a general election probably looming, it is time to promote debate on the purpose and use of higher education.

The flaw in politics over the past 20 years (since Mrs T was refused a D) has indeed been the assumption that all training beyond school-leaving age is higher education and is best placed within a university. This has worked against universities and students.

Some students want specific and vocational training. Confounding this activity with intellectual questioning has benefited no one and has not convinced observers that the new topics and courses are rigorously academic. We must overcome the snobbery that having alternative systems must mean one is "better" and another "worse"; the snobbery that meant the HND had to be rebranded a foundation degree.

One sympathetic interpretation of the last election's "education, education, education" slogan might have been to equate the repetitions with primary, secondary and tertiary levels. The government has claimed progress in the first two since 1997, but changes at tertiary level have been through stealth taxes imposed on students and their families.

Tertiary education has removed the burden of youth unemployment from the government and the burden of apprenticeships or training from private industry. Before the manifestos for the next election are finalised, all tertiary sectors would do well to press the parties to define what forms of training or education are seen as truly beneficial, how they should be funded and how education and research relate to each other and to the rest of the economy.

R. Allan Reese
University of Hull

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