Many non-Oxbridge universities are “not teaching anybody anything” and there is “dangerous complacency” about the problem, according to a panellist at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party Conference.
Jenni Russell, a commentator who writes for The Times, Sunday Times and London Evening Standard, told the meeting in Birmingham on 29 September that she had had conversations with business figures “about the inadequacy of British graduates”.
But her views were sharply contradicted by Nicola Dandridge, the Universities UK chief executive, at the event, titled ‘Making the UK the HQ for global talent’, which was hosted by Tory modernising group Bright Blue, UUK and London First.
Ms Russell told the meeting she had spoken with “someone who is now at Credit Suisse and who said to me, ‘we can no longer recruit English graduates, they are just not comparable to the international talent’”.
English graduates have “never been anywhere and can’t speak any other languages and don’t have a sense of the cultures of the rest of the world”, the banker had told her, adding: “Frankly we have a kind of protected area in the bank where we take in English graduates, who just have to deal with some of the English accounts. It’s almost like you’re the disabled in the corner.”
She claimed that part of the problem for the UK was that “a lot of universities are not actually teaching anybody anything very much. The workload [for students] is minimal because academics are being rated on their research output and their articles and their citations, and not in the least on what they are doing for their students.”
Ms Russell said it was “not at all unusual” in arts subjects to have student workload of two essays a term. “That compares with Oxbridge where terms are shorter and the standard is an essay a week, which is eight essays a term,” she added.
Pam Tatlow, the chief executive of Million+, addressing Ms Russell from the audience, said that “the next time you see Credit Suisse you ask them to recruit from some modern universities where actually you get students who are perhaps second generation [the children of immigrants to the UK] and can speak more than one language”.
Ms Dandridge, another member of the panel, said: “There’s so much evidence relating to the quality of UK universities that Jenni didn’t touch on: in terms of graduate employability, [there are] huge benefits from going to university to salary outcomes…To measure quality where your sole terms of reference are Oxbridge and the number of essays that you produce each year really misses the point about the richness of our university sector, where universities are doing all sorts of different things.”
Ms Dandridge added that the success of students on courses co-funded by employers where students spend part of their time in work, for example, “can’t be measured in the same way as if you were writing essays at Oxford”.
Ms Russell responded that such views were “dangerously complacent”.
She said: “There has been a real change in the way universities operate. Twenty or 30 years ago it was a principle that if you were in a new university you delivered an education that was explicitly as taxing as those in the old universities.”
She added: “People of my generation who went to universities which were not Oxbridge had masses of teaching… that is just not the case anymore and it’s been an explicit decision.”