In an increasingly testing global race, Britain’s
competitive advantage must be built on education.
What is this ‘increasingly testing
global race’? Why should education be seen as part of an international
competition rather than a benefit to all humankind?
Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings show that
we have three of the world’s top 10 universities to augment our fast-improving
schools. Sustaining a competitive edge, however, requires constant improvement
and innovation. We must ask hard questions about our universities’ failures on
academic rigour and widening participation, and recognise the need for reform.
Well, this seems a rather confused
message. On the one hand, we are doing very well, but on the other hand we
urgently need to reform.
Too many higher education courses are of poor quality. When
in government, as special adviser to Michael Gove, I was shown an analysis
indicating that around half of student loans will never be repaid. Paul Kirby,
former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, has argued that universities and
government are engaging in sub-prime lending, encouraging students to borrow
about £40,000 for a degree that will not return that investment. We lend money
to all degree students on equal terms, but employers don’t perceive all
university courses as equal. Taxpayers, the majority of whom have not been to
university, pick up the tab when this cruel lie is exposed.
So let’s get this right. The government
introduced a massive hike in tuition fees (£1,000
per annum in 1998, £3,000 p.a. in 2004, £9,000 p.a. in 2010). The idea was that
people would pay for these with loans which they would pay off when they were
earning above a threshold. It didn’t work because many people didn’t get
high-paying jobs and now it is estimated that 45% of loans won’t be repaid.
Whose fault is this? The universities! You might think the
inability of people to pay back loans is a consequence of lack of jobs due to
recession, but, no, the students would all be employable if only they had been taught
With the number of firsts doubling in a decade, we need an
honest debate about grade inflation and the culture of low lecture attendance
and light workloads it supports. Even after the introduction of tuition fees,
the Higher Education Policy Institute found that contact time averaged 14 hours
a week and degrees that were “more like a part-time than a full-time job”.
Unsurprisingly, many courses have tiny or even negative earnings premiums and
around half of recent graduates are in non-graduate jobs five years after
An honest debate would be good. One that took into account the
conclusions of this
report by ONS which states: “Since the 2008/09 recession, unemployment
rates have risen for all groups but the sharpest rise was experienced by
non-graduates aged 21 to 30.” This
report does indeed note the 47% of recent graduates in non-graduate jobs, but
points out two factors that could contribute to the trend: the increased number
of graduates and decreased demand for graduate skills. There is no evidence
that employers are preferring non-graduates to graduates for skilled jobs:
rather there is a mismatch between the number of graduates and the number of skilled
This is partly because the system lacks diversity. Too many
providers are weak imitations of the ancient universities. We have nothing to
rival the brilliant polytechnics I saw in Finland, while the development of
massive online open courses has been limited. The exciting New College of the
Humanities, a private institution with world-class faculty, is not eligible for
student loans. More universities should focus on a distinctive offer, such as
cheaper shorter degrees or high-quality vocational courses.
What an intriguing wish-list: Finnish
polytechnics, MOOCs, and the New College of the Humanities, which charges an
eye-watering £17,640 for full-time undergraduates in 2014-15. The latter might be seen as ‘exciting’ if you
are interested in the privatisation of the higher education sector, but for
those of us interested in educating the UK population, it seems more of an
irrelevance – likely to become a finishing school for the children of
oligarchs, rather than a serious contender for educating our populace.
If the failures on quality frustrate the mind, those on
widening participation perturb the heart. Each year, the c.75,000 families on
benefits send fewer students to Oxbridge than the c.100 families whose children
attend Westminster School. Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty
Commission found that the most selective universities have actually become more
socially exclusive over the past decade.
Flawed admissions processes reinforce this inequality.
Evidence from the US shows that standardised test scores (the SAT), which are a
strong predictor of university grades, have a relatively low correlation with
socio-economic status. The high intelligence that makes you a great university
student is not the sole preserve of the social elite. The AS modules favoured
by university admissions officers have diluted A-level standards and are a poorer
indicator of innate ability than standardised tests. Universities still
prioritise performance in personal statements, Ucas forms and interviews, which
correlate with helicopter parents, not with high IQ.
Criticise their record on widening access, and universities
will blame the failures of the school system. Well, who walked on by while it
was failing? Who failed to speak out enough about the grade inflation that
especially hurt poorer pupils with no access to teachers who went beyond
weakened exams? Until Mark Smith, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University,
stepped forward, Gove’s decision to give universities control of A-level
standards met with a muted response.
Ah, this is interesting. After a
fulmination against social inequality in university admissions (well, at last a point I can agree on), Jamie Martin
notes that there is an argument that blames this on failures in the school
system. After all, if “The high intelligence that makes you a great university
student is not the sole preserve of the social elite”, why aren’t intelligent
children from working class backgrounds coming out of school with good
A-levels? Why are parents abandoning the state school system? Martin seems to
accept this is valid, but then goes on to argue that lower-SES students don’t get
into university because everyone has good A-levels (grade inflation) – and that’s
all the fault of universities for not ‘speaking out’. Is he really saying that if we had more discriminating A-levels, then the lower SES pupils would outperform private school pupils?
The first step in a prioritisation of education is to move
universities into an enlarged Department for Education after the general
election. The Secretary of State should immediately commission a genuinely
independent review to determine which degrees are a sound investment or of
strategic importance. Only these would be eligible for three-year student
loans. Some shorter loans might encourage more efficient courses. Those who
will brand this “philistinism” could not be more wrong: it is the traditional
academic subjects that are valued by employers (philosophy at the University of
Oxford is a better investment than many business courses). I am not arguing for
fewer people to go to university. We need more students from poorer backgrounds
taking the best degrees.
So, more reorganisation. And somehow, reducing
the number of courses for which you can get a student loan is going to increase
the number of students from poorer backgrounds who go to university. Just how
this magic is to be achieved remains unstated.
Government should publish easy-to-use data showing Treasury
forecasts on courses’ expected loan repayments, as well as quality factors such
as dropout rates and contact time. It should be made much easier to start a new
university or to remodel existing ones.
So here we come to the real agenda.
Privatisation of higher education.
Politicians and the Privy Council should lose all control of
higher education. Student choice should be the main determinant of which
courses and institutions thrive.
Erm, but two paragraphs back we were
told that student loans would only be available for those courses which were ‘a
sound investment or of strategic importance’.
Universities should adopt standardised entrance tests. And
just as private schools must demonstrate that they are worthy of their
charitable status, universities whose students receive loans should have to
show what action they are taking to improve state schools. The new King’s
College London Maths School, and programmes such as the Access Project charity,
are models to follow.
So it’s now the responsibility of
universities, rather than the DfE to improve state schools?
The past decade has seen a renaissance in the state school
system, because when tough questions were asked and political control reduced,
brilliant teachers and heads stepped forward. It is now the turn of
universities to make Britain the world’s leading education nation.
If there really has been a
renaissance, the social gradient should fix itself, because parents will
abandon expensive private education, and children will leave state schools with
a raft of good qualifications, regardless of social background. If only….
With his ‘must do better’ arguments,
Martin adopts a well-known strategy for those who wish to privatise public services:
first of all starve them of funds, then heap on criticism to portray the sector
as failing so that it appears that the only solution is to be taken over by a
free market. The NHS has been the focus
of such a campaign, and it seems that now the attention is shifting to higher
education. But here Martin has got a bit of a problem. As indicated in his
second sentence, we are actually doing surprisingly well, with our publicly-funded
universities competing favourably with the wealthy private universities in the
PS. For my further thoughts on tuition fees in UK universities, see here