Branded dunces for just one exam

September 8, 1995

On August The Sunday Times revealed that some universities were accepting some school leavers with poor A level results on to foundation courses. Ignoring the fact that these students had to complete the foundation year successfully to proceed to a degree course, this was presented as evidence that degree standards were slipping.

A week later, The Sunday Times followed this with an article in which the honest achievements of a young graduate from Northumbria University were held up to public ridicule. Having been accepted on an engineering foundation year with only one A level at grade E, the young man emerged this year with a third-class honours degree in mathematics.

This is a success story, a story of hope. It was not portrayed as such. The journalists and editors thought that he should be tarred for life with a poor A level. Educating him in a subject we need badly was condemned as a waste of tax-payers' money, and the young man was condemned for being unemployed, only two to three months after graduating.

On the same day, both The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph suggested that "new" universities were being shunned by graduate recruiters. Yet in the preceding week, figures from the Department of Education and Employment revealed that the highest ever number of graduates found employment in six months of graduating in 1994. They also showed that less than 10 per cent of graduates were unemployed at this stage, compared with more than 15 per cent of 20 to 24-year-olds. These statistics, and the policies of many major graduate recruiters bear out the need for greater participation and diversity.

Homing in on one small part of the system, a part aimed at bringing in mature students and those of talent with poor experience of school, as well as providing conversion opportunities, is an odd way of reviewing higher education standards. All universities are committed to being publicly accountable for their quality and standards. Finding effective methods of demonstrating the value they add and the sustained quality and relevance of their output,their graduates, should prove a robust challenge to misinformed reporting.

Mass higher education is about unlocking the potential for economic, social and cultural development that, in the past, the United Kingdom has denied to many of its people. This country cannot afford a return to an exclusive higher education system which brands people as failures and dunces for life on the strength of one examination taken just as they reach maturity.


Chief executive, Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals

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