The degree explosion

This is the summer when more - many more - people in Britain get university degrees than ever before. What does this mean for education? What is a degree worth nowadays? Overleaf, Lesley Gerard follows the fortunes of five students from one small Northern
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Richard Hoggart was born in Hunslet, a working-class area of Leeds, in 1918 and was orphaned at the age of eight. He went to a local elementary and grammar school and then read English at Leeds University. After the Second World War, he taught for 13 years in the extra-mural department of Hull University. In 1957, The Uses of Literacy was published, his celebration of working-class culture and examination of the new mass culture. It became a seminal book. After a lectureship at Leicester University and a professorship at Birmingham, he spent five years as assistant director general of Unesco in Paris and, in1976, became warden of Goldsmiths College in London University. Since his retirement in 1984, he has written five books. His next, The Way We Live Now, will be published in the autumn by Chatto and Windus

Any sixth-former hoping to enter higher education in the mid-Nineties is faced with a range of institutions both vast and diffused, much too incoherent any longer to be called a "system". The older universities - Oxbridge, plus Redbrick plus White Tile - were joined in the Sixties by the New Universities, too many of them "Baedeker" rather than inner- city in style. Then, only a few years ago, the polytechnics were, at a stroke, transformed into the "New-New Universities". And all round are varied institutions of higher education, many of them offering degrees validated by their nearest universities.

These new students will be with 30 per cent of their age group as compared with about five per cent only a few decades ago. Very good. Some of us have been arguing for years that access to higher education in Britain was far too limited, that more need not mean worse. But latterly the expansion has been so rapid and in so many directions that choosing where to go is almost as difficult, and sometimes as random, as filling in a pools coupon. Sixth-form teachers can no longer say with the certainty they once had (often fondly remembering their own alma mater): "Go to X. They have a department among the best for that subject." Places sixth-formers may never have heard of shower them with ever-glossier brochures. They criss-cross the country comparing campuses, facilities, accommodation and, if they are lucky, offers.

Then they and their parents can begin to worry about costs. The value of the undergraduate grant has progressively declined in real terms. The cost of accommodation on campus or for miles around has greatly increased. Some landlords are making almost as much as the purveyors of accommodation to the local authorities' homeless.

Still, the students will probably enjoy themselves once there. They are young and with lots of others of their own age; they are relatively free of responsibilities except to themselves and their own futures. There'll be time to think of that later, not much before the third year. They are not as likely as some of us were, years ago, to look at their tutors and decide that university teaching looks fulfilling, reasonably well-paid and secure from political interference. Their tutors may well tell them they are increasingly ill-paid, that student/staff ratios have worsened to the point where small group teaching is no longer axiomatic, that security of tenure has been abolished.

In fact, expansion in the past decade and a half has been largely ad hoc, bought at the expense of any coherence between the institutions and the offerings of higher education, of the relations between teaching and research, or of any serious attempt to grapple with methods of financing.

The contrast with the climate within which the last great enquiry into higher education (essentially universities), the Robbins Report of the early Sixties, worked, brings all the recent changes into high relief. Robbins was lucky, had a favouring wind, financially and socially. We were climbing out of the post-War depression. Yet we still had something of that immediate post-War feeling that, especially in educational provision, we were an unjustly class-bound and narrow society, and that something must be done about it. I remember, on giving evidence to Robbins, being urged to make as strong a case as I could about the inadequacy of provision.

The Robbins Report was a humane and democratic document. Its idea of a university owed more to Newman than to industrialists and right-wing economists. It proposed, among much else, the founding of the New Universities with similar physical provision, staffing, self-governing powers and financial support for students as their predecessors. All this, it said, we owed to our sense of ourselves as a democratic society. Its proposals, its whole atmosphere, seem now to belong to a century or more ago, not merely to three decades ago.

It may be tempting and neat to ascribe the changes in climate to the Tory governments since 1979; but it would be inaccurate and unjust. By the mid-Seventies, under the last Labour government, the warning signs were there. The universities needed to be looked at radically, at their escalating costs and much else. We had been boasting for years that our financial provision for students was probably the best in the developed world. How long could we afford that?

In the second half of the Seventies, Shirley Williams, then Labour's Secretary of State for Education, put Thirteen Questions to the Universities, about their increasing costs and, above all, about whether the best use was being made of that money. It is a sign of the change of atmosphere that today her questions seem very sensible and polite, in no way finger- wagging or bullying. It is an even greater indication of changing relationships and styles that the universities gave her a rather grandly independent brush-off.

From the moment the first Conservative government took over, and increasingly thereafter, the air became chillier. More power to the centre, that is, more direct intervention from the Department of Education and Science; narrower vocational purposes together with suspicion of "pure" research (typical was Tebbit's rabble-rousing mocking of the social sciences); recurrent demands for greater accountability, "performance indicators" as sensitive as an elephant's hoof stamping on an emerging plant; much decrease of autonomy and the loss of tenure for an increasingly overworked and underpaid staff. The Government's attitude to the universities was like that of small-town shopkeepers wary of toffs who might con them with big words and present duff cheques. The Green Paper of 1985, in its intellectual and semantic shiftiness, encapsulated this attitude. In plummy language over several paragraphs, it suggested, without saying straight out, that the accountability of the universities was not being responsibly exercised and that the government intended to reduce their independence.

Still, these Tory governments promised to increase the number of undergraduates; and soon exceeded their targets. The most striking act of legerdemain was, at a stroke, to turn the polytechnics into universities. That didn't in itself increase the number of students taking degree courses. It did greatly increase the numbers studying for university degrees; and that looked very nice.

So we come to the present. The major change from polys to universities was all done in a hugger-mugger way, without adequate governmental thought on funding issues or public debate on relationships between the old, the new and the new-new universities. Those are only two of the largely unaddressed issues, but deserve particular attention, especially since one most concerns the students, the other the staff.

The National Union of Students officers recently realised that the present funding of university students is more generous than we can now afford. Five per cent, ten per cent, perhaps 15 per cent of each age group; not 30 per cent. Too many other areas are short of money. Predictably, and despite the wisdom of their officers, the NUS annual conference has just decided that they want to demand the old funding. They are wrong and risk weakening their position in the discussions which must follow. We should be able to work out, from an examination of the various systems in use in other parts of the world, a decent British system of loans. And just in case any members of the NUS Annual Conference are tempted to accuse me of saying, "Pull up the ladder, Jack, I'm alright", I went through university before the days of full grants. Like many of my peers, I sought money from charities or through loans, and worked in the vacations.

The relations of the former polys with the older universities are yet another example of the English disposition to rank almost anything by class. Anthony Crosland, the father of the polytechnics, seemed to think they would instantly rank as equal with, but different from, existing universities. He was mistaken; they immediately were regarded as the second division.

This was more a gut opinion than an academic judgement. It would be foolish to claim that even now all former polytechnics are entirely equal with older universities. You don't build up a great, and you might hope international, institution over 20 or 30 years, especially at a time when several are set up at about the same time.

What you can do, what the best of the former polytechnics have done and are doing, is to start by individual disciplines, by gradually doing at least as well as the older places in fields particularly germane to you. You can think more than most of the existing universities have done about new subjects, new combinations of subjects and new methods of assessment. You can look for hitherto neglected types and ages of students, especially part-time students attending in the evening. The fact that you are inside a city, not three miles out with two hundred acres and a cow, helps there. That also helps you to be more related in the right ways to your local community.

So, for today's students there is a huge number of choices by place and by types of course. It is still sensible for a really clever 18-year-old to try to get into Oxbridge, LSE, UCL and a few others, so long as the choice is made on academic, not place-snobbery, grounds. After that, the choices are more varied and interesting than ever before. Nothing will do more to reduce class-ranking among the universities - old, new and new-new - than an increasing disposition by candidates to say: "I want to go to X (a former poly, say) because the course seems right for me and because Professor Y runs that department and is said to be one of the very best in the field."

One of my grandsons, a bright young man, has had several offers from well-established and well-thought-of universities, but has chosen to go to one which, in general, ranks lower on the usual scales. He is going there because it has an unusual course which just suits him. He is not alone, but there are still not enough like him

Here, five students reflect on their experiences at universities, from the oldest to the newest. They all finish this summer. In 1992, they all left King Edward VI School in Morpeth, a Northumberland market town of 15,000 people. None has a job lined up. Of their year, 96 went into higher education. Portraits by Mike Abrahams

Ian Fisher, 21

graduating in Mechanical Engineering from

Imperial College, London University. A-levels Maths A, Further Maths A, Physics A.

Student staff ratio 14:1

I share a house with three other lads. We're not a bit like the Young Ones. We have a rota - it's the only way to make sure the bathroom and toilet are cleaned once a week. Apart from my academic work, I've picked up some basic skills. The first year it was wierd trying to work a washing machine. I didn't know how to write cheques and I couldn't cook. Now I've got the hang of it. I do a lot of Italian food, especially spaghetti.

I've learned to budget, although I always run out of money at the end of each term. I live on pounds 1,250 a term. I get a very small grant, the rest of that amount is made up by my parents. I know they're paying my way, so that puts pressure on me to do well. Mum is a housewife, dad is a university lecturer in Newcastle.

I enjoyed school and A-levels, and came to university intent on getting a good degree. I found the maths much easier than expected - the teaching was good. I work hard - in phases - but I think you have to get stressed out over your degree to get through. The results are important to getting a job. I have a temporary job at university lined up in the short-term, but would like to find work as a mechanical engineer.

Imperial has a reputation for being a bit dull - all scientists together. The college magazine says drinking and drug abuse are a problem and that the authorities are planning a crackdown, but I haven't seen any evidence of that "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" thing.

Sex is fairly important to me. I've had one girlfriend all the time I've been here - we split up recently. But one night stands and a different girl every night - I'm just not sure that happens any more. Maybe in the Sixties, but that has all died out since Aids.

It's hard to say why we are all so boring. I think people are forced to take their academic careers much more seriously than before. There's this folklore at college that the spiral staircases were built for easy access for the riot police - you know, when student protests and occupations were going on.

There is a cliche about students that we are all really into politics. I do not even know who the President of the National Union of Students is. Most people I know think politicians are liars.

My girlfriend was an engineering student too - but she was at Newcastle. We didn't get on that well. She wanted me to change. She thought I was a right idiot - or perhaps she discovered the REO Speedwagon LPs.

Rachel Howell, 21,

graduating BSc Hons in Maths, combining Philosophy, from Trevelyan College, Durham University.

A-levels: Maths A, Further Maths B, Geography A, General Studies A.

Student staff ratio 12:1

Coming away to university has completely changed my life. I thought I would get a good degree, take a law conversion course and become a solicitor. Instead, I've shaved my head and want to work for a campaigning group such as the World Development Movement.

I had the idea that university would be the one place where I would have the chance to do 101 things that I would never have otherwise had the opportunity to do. And it has been. The important thing for me was not the degree, but what you can learn in other ways and how your ideas change.

Now I know I could never be a solicitor. I would never fit into a nine- to-five routine, I'm not conventional enough. In the second term of my first year I read a philosophy essay - Judgement Day. It changed the way I wanted to live my life. I found it in a book, almost by accident - I had been assigned to read a different piece.

It had a central theme about how people in the Western world use resources for luxuries which are needed by those in the Third World just to live. It completely floored me for a few days. It just froze me, and I really didn't know what to do.

It set me thinking about loads of things, like charity - the important thing is not to dig in your pocket and make a donation, but address the way we live. For example, tea and coffee. For most brands, the people picking the leaves and beans get nothing, whereas with fairly traded brands the workers get a decent wage. So you can make a difference just by changing your brand.

I got involved with a group called Third World First, Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth and became Third World's campaign co-ordinator at Durham. We organise information evenings and campaign over issues such Third World debt, the arms trade and military research on campus.

I remember watching Sinead O'Connor when she was bald, singing "Nothing Compares 2 U", and thinking, "I'd look good like that." I had really curly hair and went through this struggle for ages - shall I have my head shaved or not?

A friend of mine had some clippers and I was in her room one day. She said, "Here, if you're serious, take this collection box and say you're doing it for charity.'' So I went down to the Union bar, collected pounds 15 in as many minutes.

Once I had done it I felt free, it was a liberating thing to do. It's interesting how people's attitudes change when you have no hair. Many people think I am a lesbian; I'm not. The canteen staff kept serving me the vegetarian option - without even asking - but I'm not a veggie.

When my parents came to see me in a concert, they were shocked, even though I had warned them. They handed me a brown paper bag to put over my head.

Intellectually, university has lived up to all my expectations. Maths was wrong for me. It was too hard and theoretical. Somewhere along the way it lost me. The teaching was variable, some teachers were brilliant, some were awful. There was a point in my second year when I considered dropping out, but I sat myself down, asked myself if I wanted a degree and the answer was yes - so I stayed.

The stimulation has come from other people, through reading and sitting up till 3 am discussing ideas. I've been reading a lot of novels, classic literature. I am on Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. My hero is Kahlil Gibran, whose most famous book is The Prophet.

I am into different types of music, Sixties stuff, which is naff but fun, Andean music, folk, but Leonard Cohen is my all-time favourite singer/songwriter. I don't do drugs; I prefer to get my highs from life.

University for me has meant freedom. I lived with my parents and five brothers and sisters in Harbottle, 25 miles from Morpeth, even a trip to the cinema had to be planned. Now I do what I want, when I want. I get a small grant, but my parents have been very good, they have contributed about pounds 3,000 to my maintenance. They have saved up and put money aside for our education. Dad works in the education department at the local council.

Eventually, I want to be an education officer for a campaign group, visiting schools and campuses.

I have some voluntary work lined up with a community project in Liverpool. There will be a whole load of us who will live in a house, for free room and board, we will be given money to share and cover our bills.

In ten years' time, who knows what I will be doing? I could be hugging trees trying to stop them being chopped down, or married with a kid.

I'm not sure that Oxford has

Susan Currie, 21

graduating in History, from Wadham College, Oxford

A-levels: History B, Economics B, English C

Student staff ratio in college: 16:1, but students are also taught by dons in other colleges

I was encouraged to apply to Oxford by one of my teachers. I took the entrance exams and got a two E offer, that decided it. None of my family had ever gone to university and they were thrilled.

It was a very big thing to them, but they haven't put me under pressure. On the other hand, I could never have dropped out if I had been unhappy. Certainly, I felt I owed it to them to keep going. My dad is a salesman and mum is a librarian.

I didn't know what to expect from Oxford. When I first arrived, I was very concerned that I wouldn't fit in. I wasn't happy the first term. The work was like being thrown in at the deep end. I wasn't sure what I was meant to be doing and it was difficult to make friends in the first couple of weeks. In the second term, I settled in much more quickly. I met more people and the work felt more manageable.

Oxford has had a bad press. The drunken champagne lifestyle does exist, but only for a vocal minority. Academically, it's wonderful. The libraries are great.

I've not had many major crises. I've been stressed about my finals, but that's all over now. I expect a 2:1.

The teaching is very different to other universities because it's all in very small tutorials, but I like that. Most of the tutors are very good.

I've had to work very hard - between eight and 12 essays a term. It takes about 20 hours of research per essay, and more if you count writing time and ordering library books. You have to be so disciplined or you end up staying up all night having an essay crisis.

The degree is a full-time job, really. In my spare time I've been active in the Labour Club. I've always been left-wing. At school, a group of us had a greeting for each other: "Peace man, bread and freedom''. I'm secretary of the Labour Club. I don't think much of Tony Blair, he's been disappointing so far, pandering to the right and centre. Blair is not in the same league as John Smith, and Robin Cook is more talented.a homogenous culture, although there is a strong academic culture and interest in success. It is not as bohemian as other universities. Colleges tend to have different identities. Wadham has a liberal left-wing ethos, so you don't get the rugby boors and boat club nonsense so much.

Most of the people I know who are sexually active tend to be in steady relationships. One of my friends is getting married in September. I don't think people have changed their behaviour due to Aids - I think it's a media myth that students are always having sex and taking drugs. I have a steady boyfriend. I have had two earlier relationships. I did try cannabis once at home in Morpeth, but I don't think there is much of a drugs scene in the university, it's probably bigger in the town among non-students.

Most students are in debt and aware that there's a tough job market out there. I've got a grant, but my parents are pretty generous. I also have a pounds 1,000 student loan. I don't think that is too bad.

Even Oxbridge graduates are not guaranteed to find work. A lot of people are disillusioned that Oxford is not necessarily a ticket to riches. I haven't applied for jobs. I wanted to get on with my degree then try. The plan is now to get a job in Oxford while I decide what I want. It would be nice one day to be a Labour MP or minister - who knows, but I will probably end up in some management job. I might consider going back to the Northeast, but not Morpeth - it's small and dull.

Sophie Philipson, 21

graduating with a BA Hons in English from the University of Central England, the former Birmingham Polytechnic

A-levels: English B, General Studies B, History C, Maths E, S-level English, Merit

Student staff ratio: 26:1

I thought university would be very intellectual. I thought we would all be very hard-working, sitting in each other's rooms, discussing the meaning of life.

The reality was very different.

The first year I was given a room in halls, probably because I was so far away from home. Whereas by some quirk of fate, other people doing English lived out in flat- and house-shares. I felt quite isolated.

In halls, there were very few academic people around and most students were more concerned with doing their social lives. I am not the most motivated of people, so that was not a good atmosphere for me.

I'm not being snobby, but there was a big difference between the people on the English course and the other students. You need a B and two Cs to do English, whereas other courses seemed to accept much lower grades.

I chose Birmingham because of the many theatres and cinemas, and, overall, I got much more than I expected from my degree. I've studied periods of English that I would never have known about, such as 14th-century Romance. I was surprised at how many people there were in seminars - up to 30, but the lecturers always made themselves available if you had a problem.

In the second year, I moved into a house with four other English students. We still didn't have the intellectual soul-searching. It was all football, Top of the Pops and Neighbours. So I've given up on solving the meaning of the universe. I don't really read outside the course, but I enjoy Shakespeare.

I suppose I'm a bit boring in many ways, I like a quiet life. Morpeth is a conservative, middle-class sort of place, but it has been alright for me. Birmingham was a contrast, but an enjoyable one.

I like to make my friends laugh and act the clown. At school, you have to conform. At university, you can be yourself. People at university see me as being a bit strange. I have a novelty value because I am from "Up North'', but I don't have an accent. They think I'm the Duchess of Northumbria or something.

I suppose everyone's drinking at university increased as the stress of work built up, but I don't get really drunk, I tend to feel sick before that happens and stop - usually after six pints. I go to the pub once or twice a week.

The drugs, sex and music culture is there if you want it. If you don't, then it doesn't matter.

I didn't go looking for sex or a relationship. I had an image of university lads in rugby shirts, clean-cut, with books under their arm. I went to Durham for a day and saw loads of those types, but there are none at Central England, that was disappointing.

I took a general degree because I didn't know what to do with my life. Now I still feel a bit stuck. With an English degree you're not qualified for anything in particular. Doing a general degree was putting the career off. Now I'm in the same position as at A-level - trying to think what to do, that's probably my biggest worry. I don't want to drift. But there must be loads of graduates who haven't found jobs.

I would like to be a theatre director or critic. In the meantime, I have been applying for research jobs, but I haven't got anything set up yet.

As far as money goes, I don't have any. I got a full grant because my father is retired from his job as an architectural technician. Mum is a school librarian and teaches.

My parents lent me money, at least pounds 1,000 a year. Now I'm back at home - I expect they'll hand me the bill at some point.

Ed Chester, 21

graduating in BSc Physics from University College, Durham

A-levels: Maths B, Physics A, Chemistry C, General Studies A

Student staff ratio: 9:1

I'm a solitary person. I didn't bother with people at school and I don't have much to do with people at university. I'm self-contained, but university and the way academia works has taught me to communicate better; communicating is an important social skill.

In school, you sit in a class and are told what to do. At university you're on your own in a big building, and if you don't go out and find out what's happening, no one will tell you. After three years I am more confident.

Academic qualifications are really important. I chose Durham because I wanted to do Electronic Engineering. Then when I arrived they withdrew that course and I ended up a pure physicist.

I didn't expect university to be some big "life experience", because I'm comfortable with who I am. I was looking forward to the freedom, freedom to sit up all night working if I wanted to.

I've got high ideals. I'm from a religious background. I guess that has influenced how I think. My mother is training to be a priest, dad is a metallurgist.

My social life is quite restrictive. My first year, I would have been happy being me in my little room, but they put me in a shared room. I wasn't happy about it, but I got used to it. I've been to the college bar three or four times in three years. I don't drink, only very occasionally, like just recently when a friend's exams finished. I don't see the sense in it. It's expensive and I can't afford it. I think my ideals have slipped a bit at university and I respect myself less for that.

I disagree with the attitudes of most students and really dislike some aspects of college life. My college is very traditional and attracts many public school types. They have arranged themselves into cliquey groups, which just exist to make noise and wake people up and drink - it's depressing.

Most weekends I go out of Durham. Orienteering is my life. I coach the North East squad. I just love it, it is physically and mentally challenging. There's this image of people who go orienteering as bearded Volvo-driving doctors in woolly hats. But there's a really strong ethic. When you're all standing in the rain it's one big friendly community. They care about each other and the environment. Few smoke, few drink - there are common values and a recognition that humans are not the be all and end all of the planet.

I've had one girlfriend. I met her through orienteering. Some people at college were funny about it because there was a four-year age gap - she was 16. It was my first relationship. It was sexual, but not very. Sex is not that important to me. It's over now, I think I ended it.

If I get a 2:1, I may do a Masters. If I don't I have got a temporary job set up. I have worked every summer for my dad or local firms.

In the future I want to teach, or go to live in Scandinavia. People there are aware of the direction Western society is going in and are much more conscious of environmental issues.

Facts of the matter

There are 1.5 million students in higher education, full and part- time,

compared with 672,300 in 1983/84, according to Department of Education statistics.

In 1989, the Government announced a goal of one in three young people in higher education by the year 2000 - the target was achieved seven years ahead of schedule.

From 1993, student numbers have been capped as part of a rigid funding squeeze. The Government plans to ease the cap in 1998 to allow three per cent growth by the start of the next century.

Government funding per student received by universities has fallen in real terms by 25 per cent in five years, and is projected to drop a further nine per cent in the next three years.

Student grants were frozen in 1990 - at the same time the Government set up the Student Loans Company.

Last year, grants were cut by ten per cent - the first stage in a 30 per cent reduction over three years. The next cut is due next term.

Students are expected to make up the shortfall by borrowing from the Student Loan Company, which must be paid back in five years following graduation - unless the graduate's income is less than 85 per cent of the average wage (about pounds 14,500).

From September, a student living away from home will be entitled to a maximum means-tested grant of pounds 1,885 and a maximum loan of pounds 1,385. Students living in London get a little more.

One in three students are forced to go without food due to hardship, according to the National Union of Students.

Debt levels increase with age. A survey by the NUS and National Westminster Bank showed 17- to 21-year-olds owed an average pounds 1,548; 22- to 26-year-olds reported an average debt of pounds 4,301 and those over 26 had an average debt of pounds 7,187.

One in four sixth-formers say worries over debt could prevent them from applying to university, according to another NUS survey.

Graduate unemployment has fallen, despite a 25 per cent increase in students leaving universities with degrees; 43.9 per cent of graduates found work six months after graduation. Unemployment fell from 12.7 per cent in 1992 to 11.7 per cent in 1993 across old and new universities.

University hall fees have risen by 5.5 per cent and private rents by 7 per cent. The most expensive place to study is London.

Choice of university and course can affect your job chances: 3.55 per cent of Oxford graduates are unemployed six months after leaving, whereas 13.49 per cent are unemployed after Keele. But six of the top ten universities in an employment league table were founded in the Sixties, proof that employers are targetting individual courses with good reputations rather than simply going to the ancients.

Students from working-class backgrounds have even less chance of getting into one of Britain's old universities than before the last expansion, research from Manchester University has found. Students from clerical and manual backgrounds have risen to almost half those at former polytechnics, but fallen to just under a third at the old universities.

The Government has launched a review of the shape and role of higher education. Phase two will cover funding.

The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals favours changing

the funding system to the Australian model. Graduates would pay back

a proportion of maintenance cost and fees through income tax or

national insurance.