Decent degrees don't come cheap

November 25, 2005

Bob Brecher says there's more to the dumbing down debate than bums on seats versus quality.

Although it's been running for a good few years, the "dumbing-down" debate shows little sign of going away, though "debate" is hardly the right word for the usual desultory exchanges about first-year exams, pass marks and bums on seats. So perhaps it is time to give the issue serious thought.

Is "standards v bums on seats" really the only choice? Well, why not start with the underlying question: what's the point of 40 or 50 per cent of young people going to university? Is it to get them to achieve the same sort of intellectual level as that achieved by the 5 or 10 per cent that used to go 40 years ago? And if it is, should we expect (or aim for) a similar distribution of "classes"? Maybe not. Maybe the director of English studies at Brunel University wasn't being ironic when he recently argued that "universities are supposed to provide students with the skills needed in the workplace", so that "most students simply do not need to construct independent and original arguments after university". On the other hand, perhaps universities should be about genuinely critical education, just because it's a quite general social good and not something to be restricted to trainee academics. And maybe the academic training of 40 years ago isn't the same thing as critical education anyway. Even so, how many of us believe that 40 or 50 per cent of the population are actually capable of critical thought? I do; most don't.

Whatever your own view, though, the strange thing is that standards have risen: a higher and higher proportion of each expanding cohort comes out with a 2:1. So what is going on? Aside from the obvious, unfortunately, nothing much. The one thing that hasn't changed is that universities have always trimmed their ideals to their incomes, as those who remember the traditional "Oxbridge third" can attest. And that's the problem. There's hardly any serious debate about what university education should be for, about what should count or about what at least half the population could do, given the chance. If universities are no longer what they used to be - training schools for academics and finishing schools for the rich - what should they be? What is the relation between these two issues? And what about the cost? That's why the optimistic possibility here is hardly ever properly aired, namely that the majority of people really are capable of rigorous, critical thought - with the right resources. After all, if the "brightest"5 to 10 per cent needed one-to-one tuition, small seminar groups, grants, book and travel allowances and all the rest of the support they used to have to get their 2:1s and firsts, it's pretty likely that everyone else needs much the same.

So if you're serious about widening participation in anything like a genuinely critical and properly rigorous university education, you need to put the argument - and, of course, to get serious about why it's worth spending money that could otherwise be used for all sorts of things. And if you think that is too utopian, too "political" or both, then at least drop the pretence and back McDonald's University plc as today's necessary myth for the masses. Or, if you think that most people really aren't up to it, then - having first assembled your evidence - have the courage to say so openly. A decent argument about what universities should be for is long overdue. It would surely be better than the annual pass mark chatter that serves only to avoid this most basic of issues.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University.

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