Regular readers will know that I invariably have a lot to say about Education policy, particulary regarding Universities. As someone who grew up and went through University in the first generation to be charged to study for a degree, I was very intrigued to read this report on the BBC News website.
Lord Mandelson – who has had the role of Universities Secretary added to his plethora of titles – has said that there will be more disappointed would-be students than usual this year, adding university had always been competitive. The answer is not to guarantee places for every university hopeful, he said. This is ever so slightly hypcrotical, as he was a member of the Labour Government that turned Higher Education into a business, and tried to force as many young people as possible into studying for degrees, regardless of whether they could afford it or even need it.
He even goes as far as to say that the traditional degree should no longer be a focus for future growth. Funnily enough, the Labour Government was responsible for making the degree such a fundamental part of education that there are more people with degrees than without, and plenty of people with meaningless degrees out of work while we have a shortage of skilled workers. Plenty of people with poor degrees in media studies of computer games science would have been better off doing an apprenticeship or some kind of vocational course.
Mandleson also had this to say: “It makes no sense either in terms of the cost to the public purse or the provision of quality teaching, which remains critical to the credibility of higher education. A large scale, untargeted further expansion of full-time three-year degrees without any real attention to what these additional students are studying, or how well it equips them for life at work”.
Well I’ve got news for Lord Mandelson – that is exactly the situation that his Government created, and has been ongoing for over 10 years now. Speaking as someone who entered University in 2002 and graduated in 2005, Higher Education is, quite frankly, in a mess. People are going to university because they can, because their mates do, because their parents want them to, or because of the misguided belief that it makes them ‘grow up’. Studying at University should not be a ‘walk-in’, you should have to earn the right to be there. The sheer numbers have diluted quality to the point where a degree is next to worthless.
Whilst I applaud the general idea of making University accesible for all regardless of their background – especially as someone who is the first graduate in my family – I think the Government went the wrong way about it. Higher Education was undoubtedly for the privileged few, but throwing the doors open to all and sundry was not the way to change things for the better. The sheer number of students forced the Government into introducing loans and fees, whereas Scotland has proven that Higher Education can be provided without charging the earth for it. And while Higher Education became a business, it never acquired any kind of customer focus – Universities still revolve around lecturers and research. Even though the students pay their wages.
Chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry Dr Richard Pike said: “No longer should the government be paying 18-year-olds to start courses on celebrity journalism, drama with waste management, or international football business management. These courses should be “kicked into touch”, especially at a time when the UK was desperately short of funding into areas like Alzheimer’s and renewable energy.” Wise words indeed.
What is needed is a complete rethink of Higher Education, in terms of how it fits in with society and industry. Lord Mandelson’s comments are the closest we will get to an admission that Labour’s Higher Education policy has failed. My worry is that an incoming Government full of Old Etonians will use a sledgehammer to crack this particular walnut.