Perpetuating a game of charades

July 10, 2008

The Lords debate on higher education ("Free sector and let fees rise, argue Lords", 3 July) covered most of the deceptions perpetrated in higher education.

First, the cost. Quadrupling class sizes hasn't taken more staff, we just have more seats. For financial transparency, we had to specify the proportion of our time spent teaching, and most staff, who had been inculcated into the research assessment exercise, truthfully said 10-33 per cent, but this was the wrong answer. We were asked to repeat the calculation as a proportion of a nominal 37.5-hour week, which nearly doubled the amount the university could claim on teaching cost.

Secondly, we have made allowances for changes in schools, Baroness Morris. We have made the first year easier, removed essay questions, removed negative marking from multiple-choice questions and used A-level-style questions with marks for keywords, whatever the context, and given reading weeks off. The good students now regularly get marks near 100 per cent, while a quarter of the class still fail. Really good students don't need to attend boring lectures that repeat A levels, they go to the library and romp through exams.

Thirdly, we have tricked students over rewards. A teacher in London repaying £150 a month is only just covering the interest on her loan. The compound interest on the loan at 4.8 per cent is greater than the inflation used by the Government to calculate pay-rises. If graduates do earn more, Baroness Blackstone ("Tax all graduates, says Blackstone", 3 July), then they already pay more tax and are now paying off their loans too.

Fourthly, Lord Krebs is nearly right. We teach techniques and theory; skill comes from experience in a real situation. You cannot teach skill, it has to be acquired. Employers don't want to train staff, they want someone else to. They have not realised that someone with the three Rs from GCSE and five years' work experience would be a better employee than a weak graduate nursemaided through university.

Finally, our worst deceit, or conceit, is that practical skills are second class. Twenty years ago you might have met a plumber with an IQ of 150. Now they will have been driven into academe and we import craftsmen. Many of our weaker graduates will never make up the cost of their education, nor match the missed earnings they could have gained as plumbers, plasterers or electricians. I held the hand of one overstressed student while he died, and have almost daily contact with severely depressed students who lack motivation or ability or both, whom we have doomed to failure by promising the impossible. We will give the persistent ones 2:2s or thirds.

Our undergraduates were hoodwinked into paying for the privilege of reducing unemployment. From the PowerPoint face, higher education looks like a giant charade.

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