Listeners to Radio 4’s Today programme a couple of days ago would have heard Lord Mandelson say that he would shortly announce ways for students to get a better deal. They are paying customers, he said, so they have a right to know what they will be getting in return for their money. To make informed choices, he added, they would need to know something about the type and quality of teaching universities offer, and outcomes such as their employability when they graduate. Indeed, courses directly useful to local businesses would be favoured, he said.
Our First Minister seems to have taken the final steps to eradicate the differences between training and education. There is no question, of course, that industry needs skilled people, but we used to have a sector that efficiently met those needs. In 1992, however, the Conservatives abolished the so-called “binary system” and reclassified all the former polytechnics as universities. Thus began the process of blurring those distinctions, and new Labour seems to have completed it. Students can have any education, so long as it is training.
Now that we have a Business Secretary presiding over our sector, universities must make themselves more attractive to customers or pay the price. They will be obliged to respond to popular demand. Where will that leave young people seeking an education that might prepare their minds for future experience?
University students once looked forward to having their horizons broadened in ways they probably could not imagine. Now that Lord Mandelson is urging them to be “pickier and more demanding”, why shouldn’t they opt for those institutions that allow them to tick the most popular boxes? Let us hope that at least some universities can resist these pressures and protect the quest for scholarly achievement from all-too-unreliable market forces.
Who will teach students to think, to be disciplined, to be critical of themselves? Instead, they are being encouraged to select the university that says it can prepare them for jobs that may not exist when they graduate. If companies designing their courses go bust or are not recruiting, their hard-won training could have limited value.
It is a pity that our First Minister’s advisers have not convinced him of the dangers inherent in opting for a student-as-customer model. Customers usually go for the easiest, cheapest or most user-friendly option. Thus, we should expect a rise in demand for such fashionable courses as cosmetics, costume and the culinary arts, rather than rigorous ones such as history, physics or chemistry.
Apart from their obvious responsibilities, universities once cultivated reservoirs of talented people ready to meet the unpredictable challenges and problems that befall societies from time to time. Lord Mandelson’s policies commit us to praying for a predictable future.