LM Archives
  12:15 PM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

The learn-little society

Universities are under fire for all the wrong reasons, argue Jennie Bristow and Kirsten de la Haye. The one thing the critics ignore is the intellectual impoverishment of today's 'learning society'

'Fine ideas butter no parsnips'

Universities have been slammed this year by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), which says that graduates suitable for jobs in business are as thin on the ground as they were a decade ago, before the number of students going through higher education doubled. According to AGR chief executive Roly Crockman, 'finding people who are both technically competent and commercially aware is difficult', even when the graduates concerned are from the 'old' universities. Employers surveyed by the AGR listed interpersonal skills and team working top of their list of required graduate skills, followed by motivation and enthusiasm.

But since when has the role of universities been simply to produce 'commercially aware' graduates with a set of technical skills that makes them employable?

At traditional universities in particular, a degree course used to be about training students' minds beyond the daily skills needed in the everyday world of work. Most school-leavers were perceived as capable of learning job skills through simply doing a job, while students in higher education were given three years to do something entirely different: thinking, learning and developing their brains. In a society that prized creative thought and academic specialisation all this made sense. But now, in the wake of last year's report by Sir Ron Dearing on 'Higher education in the learning society', the emphasis is more on practical, vocational education. As wider intellectual qualities are seen as intangible and irrelevant, the difference between the local college and the local job-club is more difficult to see.

According to the increasingly influential view of organisations like the AGR, the importance of doing a degree lies in spending three years practising for the world of work. Ideas are little more than an add-on to make your time at college a bit more interesting. In August the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) reported that students are falling into line, opting increasingly for vocational courses as opposed to academic degrees. As Justine Brian's story on page 15 indicates, these students often find that vocational courses are neither interesting nor useful, as the practical skills that should be learned through experience are made ridiculous when placed in a qualifications framework.

The emphasis on making academia 'practical' is completely in line with the recommendation in the Dearing report that the 'key skills' of numeracy and communication should be written into degree courses. In this business-friendly environment qualifications such as the General National Vocational Qualification (GNVQ) are to enjoy a higher status in some ways comparable with their academic-based rivals. When even the most prestigious universities find their courses reduced to this level, and gaining banal skills overtakes the development of ideas as the purpose of university, what exactly is 'higher' about higher education?

'Higher education is still too exclusive'

Throughout the 1990s the onus has been on universities to expand and include as many people in the system as possible, but for the New Labour government of today's learning society this is not enough. In July education and employment secretary David Blunkett announced plans to create more than 80 000 new university places over the next three years, just to catch those who slip the net. By August the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) had gone even further, announcing that it would reward with extra funds universities that actively went out to recruit students from poor backgrounds. As Brendan O'Neill points out in this issue, the implication of this move is that what counts in university education is not the students' ability to develop ideas but the mere fact that they get the chance to go. A suitable criterion for nursery schools, perhaps, but for university?

An even bigger concern now is that once students have been brought into university it is difficult to keep them there. In December 1997 the HEFCE claimed that over 100 000 undergraduates were dropping out of university each year; by July a new student guide, Push, hit the headlines with claims that almost one in five students dropped out or failed their finals last year. If what counted was the rigour of degree courses and the calibre of graduate produced by universities, such a dropout and failure rate would surely be seen as unsurprising in a mass system. But because what counts now is 'inclusion', the discussion that kicked off was about the need to keep students in regardless of how little they want to be there and how much they get out of the experience.

Inevitably, if the primary focus of a university is simply on 'including' as many students as possible, the quality of education received and the intellectual contribution the students can make will be sidelined as an issue. Only the Oxbridge colleges can continue to justify their existence through the calibre of academics they employ and the bright, thinking graduates they produce; and even their confidence is being shaken by calls to put 'inclusiveness' first.

In November 1997, higher education minister Baroness Blackstone spoke about Labour's commitment to high quality education institutions, but threatened to reduce the extra government subsidy given to Oxbridge anyway because, as she put it, 'Oxford and Cambridge are not the only centres of excellence in this country'. Wrong: since the previous government brought down most other redbricks close to the status of polytechnics about the only place you can still get a top education is Oxbridge. But, as the master of Pembroke College, Oxford warned in March, by claiming that Labour's mean-spiritedness would turn it into a 'second division' university, even this small haven of ideas will probably not last for much longer.

'Shock horror: standards are falling!'

There are more universities than ever before, there are more students at university than ever before; yet according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, in 1996/7 41 per cent of graduates still managed to leave college with a 2:1 degree. Obviously, as 'inclusiveness' becomes the required standard to be met by universities the old standards of academic excellence have fallen. In September 1997 the Department for Education and Employment grudgingly admitted that A-levels and GCSEs have suffered from 'grade inflation' over recent years. In December 1997 the Office for Standards in Education claimed that graduates in English, history and maths do not know enough about their subject areas even to teach them to secondary schoolchildren. In August Sunday Times journalists exposed falling standards by posing as failed A-level students and still being offered places on several university courses. But brow-beating aside, what solutions are being posed to the problem of plummeting standards?

The Dearing committee recommended that university lecturers be sent to a kind of teacher training college as a way of ensuring that students learned something. This year, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education announced plans to introduce a set curriculum for 41 university courses, to counter the variation in 'standards' between institutions. Both these moves to 'protect' standards are in fact entirely antithetical to the spirit of university education, and can only result in a further lowering of true academic standards.

The idea of a university is as an institution that puts its highly motivated students under the intense pressure of its most established academics and its most difficult ideas. Lecturers are not supposed to be teachers whose aim is to impart some basic, accessible bits of essential knowledge to the maximum number of people; they are supposed to be specialists working with people capable of dealing with the highest level of ideas. And degrees are not supposed to work according to a standard checklist so that institutions can get away with covering the basics. Learning your history timeline or the whereabouts of the world's great lakes may improve your performance at Trivial Pursuit, but it bears no comparison with the ability to understand and analyse your subject specialism.

The focus on basic, secondary school-level skills and knowledge does not only stultify the brains of the individual students, who have traditionally flourished under the competition and pressure encouraged by a rigorous academic course. It rules out completely the possibility of developing new ideas within universities. One year on from Dearing, the idea that university should be a nursery of creativity for academics and a funnel of wisdom from one generation to the next has been fundamentally transformed into something unworthy of all the money, expertise and young lives that go into it. Whatever this something is, it is not higher education.

Reproduced from LM issue 114, October 1998

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk