'We are intending to give degrees to students who can't get a C at GCSE in maths and English. Why?'

August 17, 2007

I am writing this a week before the A-level results. As is now traditional, Government ministers and others with a vested interest in current arrangements have been getting their retaliation in first by attacking the critics of A level standards and university expansion before they have said anything. Lest their efforts be wasted...

First, the expansion of higher education. Is there anything to be said against people getting a BA in surfing studies? No. If people like putting BA (hons) Surfing Studies after their names, who's to complain? Is a BA in surfing studies any use to an employer? If you are running a leisure centre, perhaps. If you are looking for a financial analyst, probably not. So, what is there to be said against it?

Most obviously, it's an expensive way of training people to work in the leisure industries. With everyone feeling obliged to charge £3,000 a year in tuition fees, and most students wanting to live away from home, a student clocks up debts upwards of £8,000 a year for three years.

Those are the ones who finish; a quarter don't. That's a low figure compared with 45 per cent in the US; but most US higher education is cheaper than ours, so dropping out is cheap.

Nor does the Government's latest bright idea help much; £3,000 a year towards the bill still leaves you to borrow £5,000 and - the real blow - to forfeit what you would have earned over three years and three years of moving up the career ladder. Part-time students have it worse; and they are the most likely to be aiming at vocationally slanted degrees.

Can we add something unpleasantly "elitist"? Well, consider the target of 50 per cent of any age group going into higher education by the time they are 30. Less than 50 per cent of each age group gets five decent GCSEs including maths and English. We are therefore intending to give degrees to students who can't get a C at GCSE in maths and English. Why? If we are providing remedial secondary education, shouldn't we say so? And distinguish it from - say - the sort of degree-level physical chemistry that makes your brain hurt even after an A in further maths?

The point of being bleak isn't to protect academically demanding subjects from whatever threats they face - funding cuts, the Government's utilitarian view of education, student instrumentalism. Those threats have always existed in the US without doing much damage to high-end teaching and research. Between top students in the best PhD programmes at the University of California, Berkeley, and marginal students struggling with remedial writing courses at the other end of the same university, you could insert almost the entire range of higher education in this country. The point of being bleak is to protect teachers and students doing useful post-secondary, vocationally oriented work.

Nobody persecutes primary schoolteachers because they do not write mathematical treatises of an evening. But the research assessment exercise has induced too many universities to persecute their own staff, who are forced to invent a research profile in which they have next to no interest or to sacrifice what they can usefully do - teach something of practical use to students who need it - to produce research that nobody will ever take seriously.

As to A level, the game is clearly up. It can't simultaneously be true that A level provides a gold standard and that it needs a wholesale overhaul.

It isn't merely a matter of inserting an A* to pick out the top 10 per cent or thereabouts from the 25 per cent of all candidates who get an A; that could be done by giving up letters and doing deciles.

It's the rest: cutting the number of modules, changing the nature of the examination from working to a marking scheme to having to display in-depth knowledge of what a subject is all about, emphasising a student's ability to display mastery of an argument in an essay. Forward to the past.

We are always told not to belittle the students on their day of glory; nobody should need to be told that. But we should belittle the adults who have spent the past two decades trying to square the circle. They have tried to make the same examination answer both "have you learnt the topics on this list?" and "how much further can you go?" And the pressure to get a positive answer to the first question has been much greater than the pressure to get an interesting answer to the second.

The main losers are not the universities that can't separate the best students from their competitors; they are the students who could have learnt a lot more and learnt it more interestingly.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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