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
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
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
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