Mandelson: ‘more will miss out on degrees’

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.



Filed under debate, education, News, politics

24 responses to “Mandelson: ‘more will miss out on degrees’

  1. “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.”

    Well said. This is an issue that many countries are dealing with–some better than others.

  2. James Daly

    Thanks for your comment Slamdunk. I can recall hearing some pretty wrong comments at Uni, like ‘I fucking hate students’ and ‘none of us go into lecturing cos we like teaching’. You get the feeling that you are there just to pay the wages, until they get rid of you in the summer and they can get on with their research jollies.

  3. If he has his way and creates two-year degrees we will see a lot of talent leave academia and go elsewhere. While you may moan about lecturers who comment that they got into HE for research and not teaching it is the truth. It is one of the key reasons why I am doing my PhD. I have taught FE for several years where I had to teach for 24 hours a week. No time for research. Is that what we want? A HE sector that is just a continuation of FE. Trust me I have seen and taught on Foundation Degree at colleges and these are all that they are. A continuation of the deplorable state our our FE sector. The term academic rigour has no place there and if this happens to HE then we will lose, rather than gain, which is what Mandelson think will happen, one of the best HE system in the world.

    The problem with student attitude is that they think because they pay towards their degrees, not all of it though, then that gives them carte balnche to have access to their lecturers. Welcome to real world. This is not the case. Yes lecturers should possibly be more accomadating but students have got to take responsibility for their learning and accept that it can not be laid on the plate for them and that they have actually put some work in. There was a story about a year ago where Humanities students complained that their Science counterparts had twice as much lesson time than them. What this highlighted is the lack of responsibility and understanding these student have about their subjects. Just to contextualise this when I did my undergrad I spent about 12 a week in seminars and lectures while a friend of mine on a Science course was doing about 24. When I asked why he explained that about half of that was lab work. What was I doing while he was in the lab. Simple, reading and research i.e. the same sort of thing just in a different location. What any govenrment has got to do is fund HE properly, yes I agree universities have got to sort out there administration too, and reintroduce academic reigour and responsibility into the sector otherwise this customer based culture will force many away from the sector and then where will our HE be.

  4. James Daly

    Ross I understand that research has a place in HE, after all how could lecturers teach if it wasnt from the research that they do, otherwise they would be spoonfeeding from text books. But arent universities first and foremost a place of learning? I certainly don’t think that I got anywhere near my money’s worth at university. Even though tuition fees are only a part of HE funding the grants from Government emanate from taxpayers money, and even though they act like private businesses universities are public bodies.

    My argument is that it it too often goes too far, I’ve never wanted to go into teaching because I don’t think I have the skills to teach people. I would like having the opportunity to do research, but is it fair to do that? I’ve been taught by enough lecturers who couldnt be arsed with students and its never conducive to good learning. Why is it that research and teaching are at odds? The best lecturer I had stressed to us that seminar discussions and essay marking helped sharpen his own research. Whereas the worst ones could be very snobby about undergraduates who in truth showed a lot more promise than they must have done as students. And they are usually the lecturers whose research involves going off on wild tangents.

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