A throttle on expansion

January 5, 1996

A familiar theme caught the ears of MPs ensconced in the committee rooms of Westminster late last term. They recognised it as the one whistled along corridors at the Department for Education and Employment's Sanctuary Buildings all year, and followed by a louder and brasher version released by the Conservative party at its annual conference in Blackpool.

The chorus, as rehearsed by Eric Forth, the higher education minister, under the microphones of Committee Room 11 in the House of Commons last month, went something like this: "Standards are slipping/We must protect them. We don't want everyone/In higher education." Labour MPs were insistent it also carried the subliminal message, "More means worse", which has been trotted out for more than 30 years whenever governments have wanted to throttle expansion.

The occasion for Mr Forth's reprise was the opposition charge that Government plans to privatise the student loans scheme are flawed because they do not extend loans to part-time students, and therefore fail to offer opportunities for more people to enter higher education. "Those people who argue rather blindly for an unlimited increase in the number of people entering higher education may be implying a reduction in the quality, challenge, integrity or rigour of what is being offered," he said.

He offered proof that degree standards were being compromised to accommodate all and sundry in universities and colleges and "make everyone feel better". His evidence was a funding council report on degree courses in English, which stated "quite baldly" that some institutions awarded no fails or third-class degrees in the subject. A mere shred of evidence perhaps but enough to allow Mr Forth a renewed call for "a debate about the nature of the degree as opposed to other educational outcomes, and whether one in three is the right level for graduate status". When first floated at the party conference in October, Mr Forth saw this debate revolving around the Government's higher education consultation paper. But as that continued to recede, in tandem with the Labour party paper, Mr Forth changed tack. At a meeting with representatives of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals before the Budget, he suggested the universities launch the debate, with their own consultation paper. Given the nature of the Budget settlement and the CVCP's repeated attempts to get anyone to debate with them, this wins a prize for chutzpah.

None the less higher and further education are the only likely source of sensible thinking. In the present state of nerves nothing much serious can be expected from either Government or Opposition. Most of the people who have done serious work on the thorny question of standards are people in higher education anyway. The CVCP can and is pulling it together.

Is this encouragement from politicians anything more than avoiding tactics? There is little appetite in Whitehall or Westminster for hammering out genuine solutions. On the contrary, the Government seems more intent on foreclosing debate by fanning public bias against higher education in the hope of squeezing down demand.

Last Sunday it was reported in our sister paper The Sunday Times that degrees were falling out of favour. Numbers applying for places were down 8 per cent on last year and jobs looked more enticing than debts and degrees, it was asserted. The figures, as we report on page 3, do not show this. Figures out today will show that the number of applicants at December 12 was just 1.5 per cent below last year - an insignificant variation given the numbers of part-time, mature and overseas students who apply late, as Mike Fitzgerald points out (page 12). Futhermore, given the reduction in options from eight to six on the applications form, any fall in applications - not applicants - of less than 25 per cent indicates growth.

So whence this confident report that people are turning away from degrees? Is it perhaps from the same stable as reports in the summer that universities were scraping the barrel for anyone to fill courses and were lowering standards to suit them? It is reasonably clear now that that story was inspired by a Treasury anxious to lessen public opposition to cuts in further and higher education in the Budget. Now, with those cuts announced, the Government faces a possible embarrassing university revolt. The vice chancellors are to meet on February 2 to decide their next steps. How convenient it would be if they could be frightened off taking precipitate action by fear that young people are becoming sceptical of the value of what they offer.

The Government has every incentive to use scaremongering over standards to reduce demand, curb costs and prevent unilateral action by universities. Though in saner moments they might like the universities to do the dirty work of imposing fees, right now they have two reasons to forestall such a move. One is that just about anything could swamp the Major administration.

The other was indicated by the Education and Employment Secretary's New Year message in The THES. "I want," wrote Gillian Shephard, "the education system to deliver the skills, knowledge and competencies that employers and the wider community need and I intend to ensure that the energy, knowledge and efforts of the newly merged DFEE are harnessed to this end." To do this she needs to keep the control tight purse strings give her. Standards are very much part of this harnessing project.

While quality can appropriately be assessed in terms of mission and can readily accommodate diversity, standards are more a matter of absolutes. Professional qualifications - medicine, health professions, law, engineering - already have externally negotiated standards. This principle is likely to be extended to introduce an element of external standard setting in higher level General National Vocational Qualifications.

There is no such external element in non-vocational degrees, but demand for such benchmarking is growing and in a letter to The THES December 29, Douglas Probert suggested how this too might be done. If there is to be no serious loss of confidence in the qualifications offered by the less fashionable of our universities, 1996 will have to be the year in which this issue is addressed collectively.

There has long been a pecking order among universities, but the lack of national benchmarks since the abolition of the Council for National Academic Awards means that the alma mater is fast becoming much more important than the degree and the polite fiction that all first-class degrees were equal is no longer honoured. Snobbery is again almost respectable, with Oxford dons describing courses in new universities as "Mickey Mouse degrees from Disneyland universities". Such snobbery, and the arguments for rationing which go with it, is implicitly encouraged by Mr Forth. It damages the many excellent students now studying all manner of non-traditional courses across the wide spectrum of higher education. Snobbery and rationing are not the solution to higher education's difficulties nor are they the means to meet the country's needs. Some application of the Trades Descriptions Act to qualifications might be.

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