When is a degree a superior GCSE?

August 17, 2007

Some universities may soon be providing little more than "remedial secondary education" to under-qualified undergraduates, an Oxford scholar suggests in today's Times Higher.

As thousands of students this week receive A-level results and prepare to take up university places, Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, uses his regular column in this newspaper to criticise plans to get at least 50 per cent of under-30s into higher education.

"Less than 50 per cent of each age group gets five decent GCSEs including maths and English," he writes. "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?"

In a week in which the Confederation of British Industry called on the Government to introduce "golden carrot" bursaries of £1,000 for all students taking degrees in science, engineering, maths and technology, Professor Ryan also questions the rise of degree subjects such as "surfing studies".

"If people like putting BA (hons) Surfing Studies after their names, who's to complain? (But) it's an expensive way of training people to work in the leisure industries," he says.

"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 debt upwards of £8,000 a year for three years. Those are the ones who finish: a quarter don't."

Such students also forfeit three years of potential earnings and three years of potentially moving up the career ladder, Professor Ryan says.

Alan Ryan, page 13

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