Now, concentrate (1 of 2)

February 3, 2011

In your letters page last week, correspondents reviled me as "elitist" ("Elitist pipe dream", January). At least it makes a change from being reviled as a lefty.

I wish the writers had taken the trouble to also read what I have written in my blogs on changes to higher education (eg, http://dcscience.net/?p=3564), because I made no mention of post-1992 universities. Furthermore, I proposed that first degrees should be general, not honours degrees, everywhere, including University College London and the University of Oxford. My proposals are intended to lessen social divisions, not to increase them.

None of the letters addresses my premises that honours degrees are not appropriate for 50 per cent of the population and that there are not enough good researchers to teach half the population. It is inordinately expensive, and so socially divisive, to try to educate half the population to near research level.

On the research side, my premise is that the UK lacks the real graduate schools that exist, for example, in the US. This is a bad thing, at least in science, where advanced ideas can be inappropriate for third-year classes. If we are to get real graduate schools, teachers will not be able to shoulder the additional load; the only option will be to reduce the number of undergraduates in universities that run graduate schools.

I have never denied for a moment that there is some good research in post-1992 universities or that ways would have to be found to make sure that that work continued. There seems to me to be a real problem with the arithmetic, and the finances, in trying to simply enlarge by a factor of five a system that was designed for far fewer people. We need to start a discussion.

David Colquhoun, Former A.J. Clark professor of pharmacology, University College London

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