Do they deserve to be degrees?

January 23, 2004

The higher education bill has reheated the debate about non-traditional courses, Tony Tysome reports

The government's plans to increase the number of student places, bring in top-up fees and relax the rules on degree-awarding powers have resurrected a heated debate over so-called Mickey Mouse courses.

Critics, including opposition MPs are on the warpath over degrees in non-traditional subjects such as hairdressing and surfing, claiming that universities are attempting to cash in on efforts to hit the government's 50 per cent participation target by creating courses with little intellectual content or academic credibility.

The likelihood that, from 2006, universities will be able to charge £3,000 a year for courses will encourage the development of more degrees designed to get fee-paying "bums on seats", the critics say.

Further concentrations of research funding are forcing universities to consider how and where they fit into an emerging higher education market - a market that will be refined by the introduction of top-up fees. Those weaker at research are generally more likely to offer degrees with a higher vocational content, and it is these types of courses that tend to be dubbed "Mickey Mouse".

It is not just fees that are changing. The government is consulting on proposals to make it easier for colleges and companies to gain the power to award degrees. It is considering making it easier for institutions with degree-awarding powers to become universities that would not have to undertake research. Critics argue that these changes will serve only to further dumb down higher education.

The debate goes to the heart of the nature and purpose of higher education.

It boils down to, on one hand, the concept of a university as a centre of liberal arts and big science learning with, at its core, a "community of scholars" engaged in research.

On the other hand is the more modern idea that universities should concentrate on turning out workers with the sort of high-level skills needed by employers and the UK economy. Some academics agree with those politicians who say the definition of a degree is being stretched too far.

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Liverpool University, argues that some courses are degrees in name alone. "The only thing that makes them degrees is that chartered universities declare them to be degrees," he said.

Professor Smithers said degree courses should involve the study of a body of knowledge in depth and of ways of understanding the world. They should have built into them an exploration of what academics and students will or will not accept to be true, he said.

"My guess is that in a lot of these cases the body of knowledge is being bolted on in order to justify calling them a degree," Professor Smithers said. "You have to ask, are universities really the place to develop this kind of practical expertise?"

Anthony Steen, Conservative MP for Totnes, agrees. He said: "I am not opposed to qualifications in any of these subjects. I am just against them being called degrees.

"It is bringing down the value and status of a degree as an academic qualification and confusing it with practical qualifications. I am not saying academic qualifications are better - they are just different. Can you imagine trying to get a job with one of these degrees? I don't think you would get very far."

Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, agrees that some of the courses were likely to "raise some eyebrows" among employers.

He said: "The kind of employers we represent, who are looking for high-fliers, would probably take some convincing about the value of these degrees. It will be up to the graduates from these courses to convince prospective employers that they have gained a range of skills.

"This is why it is important, with the rapid expansion of higher education and the proliferation of subjects, that employers do not just rely on degree classifications as an indicator of a job applicant's potential."

Such criticisms bring a sharp response from many academics, who believe they disguise a desire for more central control over what constitutes a degree, in effect imposing a national curriculum on higher education.

Alison Wolf, professor of management at King's College London and former professor of education at the Institute of Education, believes the critics are straying on to dangerous ground.

She said: "I do not think you can sit in Whitehall and say one degree is good and another degree is bad - you cannot tell whether a degree is worth doing from its title. The idea that you can is a recipe for a further dose of central planning and target-setting.

"The thing that will really undermine standards is chronic underfunding - and that has nothing to do with the Quality Assurance Agency."

The QAA is adamant that the safeguards in place are sufficient to protect standards.

A spokesman said: "It is important that subjects are accepted by the academic community itself: primary responsibility for protecting academic standards lies with the providers of higher education.

"The agency works with providers to help them in meeting that responsibility and acts as a steward on behalf of the higher education sector."

Roger Brown, principal of Southampton Institute and former chief executive of the QAA's precursor, the Higher Education Quality Council, agrees that there is not much more that can be done without bogging down the sector with more administration.

He said: "I think a lot of this talk about Mickey Mouse courses just amounts to academic snobbery. The key thing is for people to be clear about the educational value of a course."

Professor Smithers said the higher education bill, which will introduce top-up fees, might provide a solution.

He said: "If the bill can establish the principle of universities pricing their courses, and students contributing to the cost of them, then instead of these courses being essentially free, students will have to think a lot more about whether they are worth investing in.

"Then at least it will not be the taxpayer who is footing the bill, so it won't matter so much whether they are Mickey Mouse courses or not."

A Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman said: "Institutions need to be responsive to the demands of employers and students and, in order to remain competitive, will offer provision to reflect demand.

"Recent evidence showing that graduates fare much better in the labour market, relative to non-graduates, reinforces the overall value of higher education. Higher education institutions are subject to rigorous quality assurance mechanisms to assure the quality and standards of their higher education."

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