IUSS reaction: undergraduate education has changed, let’s accept it and move on

The question is not whether standards have fallen but rather whether we have the right standards for what we are trying to achieve, says Bob Brecher

August 10, 2009

The level of debate around the perennial issue of standards is all too indicative of the state of university education in the UK. First, there are the Jeremiahs who bemoan that they are faced with teaching students who actually need teaching and insist that the demands of their world-shaking research must take precedence over teaching. Not that they’re generally quite so blunt about it.

Then there are those vice-chancellors – and others – who refuse “even to acknowledge that there [is] an issue” (“Standards issue can’t be evaded”, 6 August). And then, inevitably, there are the politicians who want to impose an über-Quality Assurance Agency to exhaust and demoralise everyone to the point where university education degenerates into the same sort of pretence that rules in our schools.

The last two constituencies are busily confirming their own prejudices and furthering their own agendas. The likely outcome is, of course, all too obvious: a few universities will go private and the role of the rest will be to serve as a disciplinary arm of the neoliberal state. Meanwhile, all the Jeremiahs who fail to find shelter in the private universities, or haven’t already retired, will have been sidelined and forgotten. And so in effect we’ll be back where we were before the Second World War. University education will again be the preserve of the few – largely the politically reliable few, of course, given that they’ll need wealthy parents – and the rest will go through a certificated job training designed to make them into a docile, flexible and obedient “resource” for what remains of the economy.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. Likelihood is one thing; necessity another. And a genuine debate about standards could become an effective step on the way to building a very different future for our universities – and for ourselves. Of course a first-class degree in such-and-such from the University of X is not the same thing as it was 30 years ago; of course getting a 2:1 from the University of Y does not require the same intellectual ability that it did 30 years ago. That much is incontrovertible, and it’s either disingenuous or silly to pretend otherwise. But that’s not the real issue at all. The real issue is this: what has changed and what should be our attitude to it?

In the 1960s, the proportion of the population going to university in the UK was minuscule, even after the post-Robbins expansion. A first-class degree, or even a 2:1, was still essentially a qualification for entering the academic profession (and, by extension, other elite professions): those of us old enough will remember the phenomenon of academics from the then new universities trawling around third-year undergraduates at the older ones looking for likely lecturers. That’s what taking a degree was basically for, and so the criteria for judging performance were those appropriate to research and scholarship – in theory, at least, if not always in subjective and not always disinterested practice.

Forty years later, we have something approaching mass higher education: nearly half of young people go to university. That of course is exactly what the elitists bemoan. How on earth can half the population possibly do anything like serious academic work? How can half the population possibly be clever enough to do something so special, so rarefied, so demanding? Why, most of them come to university barely able to write a grammatically correct sentence. I’ll come back to this. The point I want to make is that, whatever your view of mass higher education, it’s a very different sort of thing from elite higher education.

With far more students, much larger classes, most students being in effect part-timers because they have to work in a bar or supermarket to support themselves, everything changes. Where once most students could do pretty well with minimal teaching – only the brightest figured, and the rest could be given a third provided they just showed up to the exams – most of today’s students need to be taught, and to be taught well. Where students who may not really have needed one-to-one tutorials and genuine seminars had them, today the situation is exactly the reverse: most students need that sort of teaching but can’t have it. Where once both academics and students had time to talk, think and read all day, five days a week, if not more, now they do not.

In these circumstances, the absolute level of intellectual attainment marked by a BA or BSc is bound to be lower compared with 40 years ago. University education is no different in this respect from tertiary or primary education. That’s why, historically, the extension of education to more and more of a population has at the same time seen a chronological extension of education. Where once most children didn’t go to school at all, they later left at 14; where once they left at 14, they now leave at 18, and half of them for university. So of course what was once marked by a first at undergraduate level is today not achieved until masters level, or even beyond. Mass university education, just like mass basic education, inevitably changes its purpose, and thus its standards; and just as inevitably it extends the time it’s going to take to reach a particular intellectual level. Of course staff-to-student ratios could increase in direct proportion to the number of people coming to university who need more teaching; but how realistic is that scenario?

In light of all that, there’s a clear choice. Either we accept that the purpose of undergraduate education has changed, and that standards have changed accordingly; or we insist that an undergraduate education ought to be only what it once in essence was, namely a qualification for the academic profession. It’s not a question of standards being lower or not: of course those standards, the standards appropriate 40 years ago, are not what they were. The question is this: are those standards the right ones?

Some people will sincerely insist that they are, and that university education should be restricted to an elite because most people aren’t up to it. Those of us who disagree, who think that most people are in fact capable of benefiting from the sort of critical education that a proper undergraduate degree ought to consist of, need to do two things. First, we have to take the argument to the elitists and to distinguish it from the spurious insistence that everything is just fine. Second, we need to make explicit the appropriate standards in a mass university system: the demand for transparency is entirely reasonable.

It would make for an interesting debate, and a useful one, not least because of its radical implications for both the content and structure of undergraduate degrees.

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