University drop-outs are cleverer than you might think

OUR YOUNG people aren't daft. Between 18 and 25 per cent of them fail to finish their university and college courses. They vote with their feet. The figures vary depending on which newspaper you read, but all are based on statistics recently issued by the Higher Education Funding Council which, by discreet management of the money it doles out, controls the numbers, the standards, and the quality of the college education our young people receive.

Its powers are immense. It seems to those at the receiving end, as they bid for students and money in competition with other institutions, both Machiavellian and Kafkaesque. It, and its predecessors - different names, same principle (that is to say Doler Out Of Money - or DOOM) have quietly presided over the extraordinary inflation of higher education in the last 40 years. Then, it was 12.5 per cent of our young; now it is 40 per cent, and is likely to rise to 50 per cent. The HEFC has managed this without any kind of concomitant rise in the money it itself receives. Where once the taxpayer paid for the education of the 12.5 per cent, which it could well afford, now parents of the 40 per cent are expected to contribute, the young to borrow, and the taxpayer to sop up the surplus. Standards have slumped, the young are crowded into over-large, over-administrated and underfunded institutions, and the drop-out rate - though heaven knows how these figures are come by - already costs taxpayers pounds 200m a year.

Those who drop out in the first term are not even counted. They are myriad; they have been hand-held through the complexities of their Ucas forms, got to the university "of their choice" - well, second or third choice, or "Clearing" - then found themselves presented with the free-for-all mayhem of registration week and just got the hell out of there.

The 50 per cent ambition is too great, too high, too soon, too inflated. The expansion of higher education must stop now, while we all have a breather, and contemplate whether education, education, education is all it's cracked up to be.

The trouble with inflation is that it's catching. It applies to grades as well as numbers. The more students the university can squash in, the more funds it attracts - so long as standards are maintained. The funding councils and vice-chancellors will swear that standards haven't dropped, and so far as they can see they haven't. But kindly teachers throughout the system are marking up, inflating grades to what they think the student is capable of, not what the wretched, under-taught creature has really achieved. At the bustling University of the West of England (once Bristol Tech - but that's another story, of the punishing of our older universities for their academic insolence), where in 1985 seminars used to be four hours per term per student per subject and eight to 15 per group (bad enough), they are now down to one 50-minute hour per student per subject per term, 20 to 30 per group, and referred to as "student contact time". ("Seminar" sounds too poncy.) The situation distresses administrators, lecturers and students alike, but what is to be done?

Employ lower-qualified "part-time" lecturers and save money. ("Part-time" is a misnomer; part-time staff often put in more teaching hours than full- time people, but don't get holiday or sick pay.) This gain must be weighed against the extra funding a college gets if highly qualified staff "publish" - never mind the quality, feel the width - but this keeps them out of teaching. Accept students from the three lowest social classes and get a bonus - but be penalised for a higher drop-out rate. The students, at the wrong end of everything, expecting "involvement" and finding only chaos, without books or teaching packs, reduced to spending long hours photo-copying in the library, running up a debt to the state, drown their sorrows in the bar or vote with their feet. Out of there.

Thirty years ago the wealth or background of parents made little difference to a pupil's attainment; the whole education system was devised to pick out the 12.5 per cent "elite", those academically inclined. Now, according to the report, social class means everything. Students from working-class homes are most likely to have low A-level scores and those with lowest A-level scores are most likely to drop out. Of course; it's those post- codes again. If you get low A-level scores you're not likely to get a first or a two-one, which is what employers now demand (their ambitions, too, having been inflated). More failure, more humiliation, more ignominy.

"Young people from wealthy areas are more than 10 times more likely to enter higher education than those from the poorest neighbourhoods," says Sir Brian Fender, of the HEFC for England. Well, of course. Maybe the socially excluded are just 10 times more realistic than their middle- class compatriots. The wishful, and expensive, thinking of governments is that all children are born academically equal, and that if they don't read by seven and get degrees at 23, it can only be the fault of the teachers, lecturers and institutions, and nothing to do with the nature of the species. The children, simply looking round the classroom, know better, and make proper judgements as to how their lives are going. Just let's get out of here, fast.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea