Values crushed by compulsion

June 29, 2001

In trying to push the indifferent to to get a degree, we degrade the university system, Frank Furedi argues.

This month's Universities UK statement on widening participation indicates that the project of social engineering now dominates the higher education agenda.

The crusade to widen participation has acquired a momentum of its own. The inexorable logic of the widening participation agenda is to create a system of higher education resembling the institution of the National Service of the 1950s.

An exaggeration? According to the Universities UK statement: the "key issue for the sector now is attracting people with no background of (or current aspirations to) study in HE to courses and universities". In other words, widening participation means getting people to come to university regardless of whether or not they have such aspirations. This indicates that gaining access to a university course no longer has any meaning.

Widening participation is a worthwhile objective. A progressive education system is one where no one who is capable of undertaking degree course work is denied the opportunity to do so. But there is nothing progressive about going out to get bums on seats. And targeting those who have no aspiration for further education degrades university education. A proper university system, wedded to standards of academic excellence, is not one in which everyone can participate.

The bureaucracy that runs higher education realises that the targets for widening participation are inconsistent with the maintenance of academic standards. However, since the targets have to prevail, standards must give way. That is why the present schema of widening participation is against everyone's interest. It means participation, but participation in an intellectually diminished and a materially inferior system.

The main quality that is now demanded of students is the ability to attend courses for a given period of time. Attendance itself now guarantees a form of recognition. A recent report of the all-party education and employment select committee has even suggested that students who drop out of university after completing the first year of their degree should be given formal recognition. The idea that one year's attendance is better than nothing and should be formally recognised makes perfect sense to those who confuse attendance with participation in an intellectual community.

The significance that the university bureaucracy attaches to attendance is shown by the growing tendency to abandon final examination in favour of degrees awarded on continuous assessment. In many institutions, students can now graduate with a "good" degree without writing any exams. There is valid argument for using a variety of assessment techniques for challenging students. But these days, the main function of assessment is to ensure that students attend - that they "participate" in their courses. How long before the filling-out of attendance sheets becomes a new form of assessment?

Advocates of the dogma of widening participation claim that their crusade will help people realise their potential. But whose potential will be realised? It will not be that of the intellectually curious - who are unlikely to be stretched by the "inclusive" curriculum. Nor will it do much for those who show no aspiration to study. They will get degrees that recognise their attendance, but such bits of paper will fast become a devalued commodity.

Today, the policy is to convince the unconvinced of the value of university education. Tomorrow, such arguments will give way to more direct social pressure. Will compulsory university education be the next big idea of the widening participation crusade?

Frank Furedi is a sociologist at the University of Kent, Canterbury.

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