No place for snobbery in jobs market

August 18, 2000

Chris Woodhead's parting gift to students receiving A-level results this week - denigrating the degree courses they are entering before they have even accepted their places - is ill-directed.

The belief that new degree subjects are somehow more bogus than old ones should not be allowed to take root. The media, for example, is one of Britain's most successful industries. It would be odd if there were not substantial degree programmes devoted to studying them and preparing people to work in them.

Music in its many forms is also a wealth-generating industry. Sneering at those minded to get professional about piping is dismissive of the vocationalism the chief inspector purports to favour. Such arguments surrounded the introduction of English literature in the 19th century - and might, with as little justification, do so again.

This week's A-level results confirm that the pool of potential university students is growing. Most will go on to work in a service-oriented economy where a degree is a passport. More occupations are turning all-graduate, including such mass employers as the health professions. Far from dumbing down, it reveals the British workforce has higher skills to do more complex jobs. It also means, if universities respond to demand as they are urged to do, plenty more specialist degrees to annoy Mr Woodhead and friends.

Universities cannot expect to fill their places with students with high-grade academic A levels and, if expansion is renewed, must expect even wider variation among applicants. New exam regimes for the final school years - already introduced with well-publicised glitches in Scotland - will be introduced elsewhere this autumn. They will make combining academic and vocational studies easier and broaden choice.

Education secretary David Blunkett claims this week that they will make university applications easier to judge objectively. "World-class" tests being piloted for high-fliers should help over-subscribed universities cherry-pick more effectively - to the likely benefit of schools with high staff:student ratios, as Bill Stephenson argues (page 14).

More complaints can be expected from universities at the lack of specialist preparation, especially in maths. More applications are likely for courses that carry on the vocational/academic mix. It will be a pity if the chief inspector's snobbery makes universities less willing to innovate and students less willing to branch out. It will also make government access targets harder to attain.

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