Source: James Fryer
Universities still prioritise performance in personal statements, Ucas forms and interviews, which correlate with helicopter parents, not with high IQs
In an increasingly testing global race, Britain’s competitive advantage must be built on education. Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings show that we have three of the world’s top 10 universities to augment our fast-improving schools. Sustaining a competitive edge, however, requires constant improvement and innovation. We must ask hard questions about our universities’ failures on academic rigour and widening participation, and recognise the need for reform.
Too many higher education courses are of poor quality. When in government, as special adviser to Michael Gove, I was shown an analysis indicating that around half of student loans will never be repaid. Paul Kirby, former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, has argued that universities and government are engaging in sub-prime lending, encouraging students to borrow about £40,000 for a degree that will not return that investment. We lend money to all degree students on equal terms, but employers don’t perceive all university courses as equal. Taxpayers, the majority of whom have not been to university, pick up the tab when this cruel lie is exposed.
With the number of firsts doubling in a decade, we need an honest debate about grade inflation and the culture of low lecture attendance and light workloads it supports. Even after the introduction of tuition fees, the Higher Education Policy Institute found that contact time averaged 14 hours a week and degrees that were “more like a part-time than a full-time job”. Unsurprisingly, many courses have tiny or even negative earnings premiums and around half of recent graduates are in non-graduate jobs five years after leaving.
This is partly because the system lacks diversity. Too many providers are weak imitations of the ancient universities. We have nothing to rival the brilliant polytechnics I saw in Finland, while the development of massive online open courses has been limited. The exciting New College of the Humanities, a private institution with world-class faculty, is not eligible for student loans. More universities should focus on a distinctive offer, such as cheaper shorter degrees or high-quality vocational courses.
If the failures on quality frustrate the mind, those on widening participation perturb the heart. Each year, the c.75,000 families on benefits send fewer students to Oxbridge than the c.100 families whose children attend Westminster School. Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found that the most selective universities have actually become more socially exclusive over the past decade.
Flawed admissions processes reinforce this inequality. Evidence from the US shows that standardised test scores (the SAT), which are a strong predictor of university grades, have a relatively low correlation with socio-economic status. The high intelligence that makes you a great university student is not the sole preserve of the social elite. The AS modules favoured by university admissions officers have diluted A-level standards and are a poorer indicator of innate ability than standardised tests. Universities still prioritise performance in personal statements, Ucas forms and interviews, which correlate with helicopter parents, not with high IQ.
Criticise their record on widening access, and universities will blame the failures of the school system. Well, who walked on by while it was failing? Who failed to speak out enough about the grade inflation that especially hurt poorer pupils with no access to teachers who went beyond weakened exams? Until Mark Smith, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, stepped forward, Gove’s decision to give universities control of A-level standards met with a muted response.
The first step in a prioritisation of education is to move universities into an enlarged Department for Education after the general election. The Secretary of State should immediately commission a genuinely independent review to determine which degrees are a sound investment or of strategic importance. Only these would be eligible for three-year student loans. Some shorter loans might encourage more efficient courses. Those who will brand this “philistinism” could not be more wrong: it is the traditional academic subjects that are valued by employers (philosophy at the University of Oxford is a better investment than many business courses). I am not arguing for fewer people to go to university. We need more students from poorer backgrounds taking the best degrees.
Government should publish easy-to-use data showing Treasury forecasts on courses’ expected loan repayments, as well as quality factors such as dropout rates and contact time. It should be made much easier to start a new university or to remodel existing ones.
Politicians and the Privy Council should lose all control of higher education. Student choice should be the main determinant of which courses and institutions thrive.
Universities should adopt standardised entrance tests. And just as private schools must demonstrate that they are worthy of their charitable status, universities whose students receive loans should have to show what action they are taking to improve state schools. The new King’s College London Maths School, and programmes such as the Access Project charity, are models to follow.
The past decade has seen a renaissance in the state school system, because when tough questions were asked and political control reduced, brilliant teachers and heads stepped forward. It is now the turn of universities to make Britain the world’s leading education nation.