McDegree ready to go

February 14, 2003

Why shouldn't McDonald's award degrees? James Tooley challenges the universities' monopoly

Screaming Lord Sutch, the late lamented leader of the Monster Raving Loony Party who stood in 40 elections and lost them all, famously asked: "Why is there only one Monopolies Commission?" We should be asking the same question about higher education: "Why is there only one authority determining whether or not an institution can call itself a university?"

For the term confers respectability on an institution of higher learning.

It signifies excellence and reputation. But why can't there be competing standards of what this excellence should entail? Competition in all other areas of our lives leads to higher quality and greater accountability. Why not in the body that determines respectability with regard to degrees?

In Britain, the body concerned is the Privy Council, that archaic and arcane institution to which appointment is for life, and which operates under royal prerogative. Under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, it is the body solely responsible for approving the use of the word "university", including "university college". Surely republicans, and there are many in our universities, should be demanding an alternative body to confer this important title? But even those of us who aren't thus persuaded might wonder why this particular body should be given such a weighty role in determining quality.

The issue is brought into stark relief by the following observation.

Suppose an existing university wanted to introduce a degree course in, say, hamburger science. Provided it can get its programme through its governing council - and there seems to be nothing to stop similar, some might say more dubious, courses being brought under the ambit of university education - there is nothing to stop it doing so. It can confer degrees and the title of bachelor on anyone who has followed the correct course of study without any bother. Notably, it can do so irrespective of whether or not it has an existing reputation in the field of hamburger science at all. And its students can be guaranteed taxpayer subsidy to partake of its offerings.

But suppose an organisation with an already strong standing in this important field - say McDonald's - wanted to run a competing programme, bringing to bear the benefit of its enormous and manifest experience in the field, it would be against the law to do so. It can, of course, teach students in the various components and arts of hamburger science. But if it dared to call the recipients of its learning "bachelors" and awarded them degrees, it would cross over into illegality. Why on earth should this be the case?

Some might argue that to allow it to do so would open the floodgates to a whole assortment of cowboy operators and would undermine the whole edifice of what quality in higher education stands for. But isn't that precisely the situation we find ourselves in today? Because all "universities" have that title conferred on them by connection to mysterious tradition, we have to live with the fiction that all are equal, that a degree from the University of Bums-on-seats is worth the same as one from Oxbridge.

This pernicious lie is one of the reasons why so many of our young people are beguiled into venturing into university in the first place, only to realise later the enormity of their error when they can't find the employment that they think befits their new status. But every employer knows it is not true. And the universities themselves know this too - which is why 19 voluntarily gathered together to create the Russell Group to distinguish themselves above the rest. It is that market indicator of quality that is important, not any conferred on us by the Privy Council.

Perhaps John Major did us a favour back in 1992 by creating, by stroke of government fiat, so many new institutions carrying the lofty title of university. If it was good enough for such a man, why not for for-profit organisations such as McDonald's?

James Tooley is professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

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