An inspector calls at the faculty of surf science

It may seem easy to ridicule some of the degrees on offer today, but universities argue that the new-style courses are intellectually strong and vital to the economy
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Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools, is at it again, commenting on areas for which he is not directly responsible. This time he has waded into higher education, attacking "joke" degrees such as knitwear studies and golf course management, and now calling for an inquiry into degree standards.

Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools, is at it again, commenting on areas for which he is not directly responsible. This time he has waded into higher education, attacking "joke" degrees such as knitwear studies and golf course management, and now calling for an inquiry into degree standards.

He clearly thinks that degree courses are not demanding enough. Earlier this month, he claimed that A-levels were becoming too easy. "As with A-levels," he has now said, "we need to look at the standards of every degree because, as exam results improve in schools, they ought to be improving in higher education too."

Is Mr Woodhead right? The director of Ofsted, the Schools Inspectorate, is concerned about a number of issues. Standards are being compromised partly by grade inflation, the fact that increasing numbers of students are achieving Upper Second degrees with each successive year. Thirty years ago only a small proportion got an upper second-class degree. Now it's almost the norm. His concern is shared by a number of higher education experts.

But Mr Woodhead is also worried that standards are being affected by the huge expansion in higher education, which has brought a much wider student mix into university, including those who enter without A-levels. Students sign up for degrees such as surfing and football culture, which sound sexy, or - like media studies, bagpiping, knitwear studies, beauty therapy and cosmetic sciences - that promise jobs. He says: "There is a particular issue with so-called vocational qualifications which attempt to achieve an academic identity and which in some cases fail to lead to worthwhile employment."

The chief inspector's views are rejected by many in higher education. But academics in the old universities that existed before 1992 have some sympathy with his objection to trendy new degree subjects. Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University, believes one of the problems is that the purposes of higher education are no longer clearly defined. "The Government seems to want more and more people to be involved in further and higher education almost as a form of national service," he says. "Who defines the purposes or the worthwhileness of it?" If students had to contribute more towards the cost of their degree courses - more than the £1,050 that some pay in tuition fees at the moment -some hard decisions would be made. As it is, universities are encouraged to put on courses that sound fun; students enrol for that reason and the funding councils pay up accordingly.

In the past, the purpose of higher education was to take a subject to its limits through research and teaching, says Professor Smithers. Degree courses were set up with clear organising principles such as a field of employment like medicine or law. "The trouble without a clear organising principle is that you get the vacuous offerings that Chris Woodhead has described, and quasi-vocational studies that can bring in students because they think the degrees sound sexy and interesting," he argues.

Professor Smithers is even more concerned about another phenomenon. The modular approach to degrees means that students can study a confection of differing courses that have no link with one another. They can study courses across disciplines - a bit of media studies, some science and some business studies. "It's very hard to see what their degree is in at all," he says.

Dr Ken Maxwell, deputy head of physics at Nottingham University, agrees that the standards of degree courses should be looked at. In physics, standards are very different from 30 years ago, he says. That is largely because students are arriving at university unable to do things that used to be expected in O-level maths, so that many university physics departments have to lay on remedial teaching.

Most university vice-chancellors, however, take umbrage at Mr Woodhead's remarks, arguing that standards are rising and universities are becoming more professional. All institutions pay attention now to the skills that graduates will need at work. Thus students are taught how to make presentations, to communicate well, work in teams, and to solve problems in a way they never used to be. They are taught these transferable skills - skills that can be transferred from one industry to another - as part of their degrees.

Nottingham, for example, has introduced a pioneering course for students taking the more academic physics degree, the four year MSci. Transferable skills are incorporated into the fourth year. During that year students do only project work. They are divided into groups and asked to give a lecture to other students on certain topics, thus honing their presentation, communication and teamwork skills. They are required to write essays and develop their IT skills; and they are asked to write newspaper articles about aspects of physics for the lay person.

"The maturity and the confidence achieved by these students has been remarkable to see," says Dr Maxwell.

Dr Mike Goldstein, Vice-chancellor of Coventry University, says that the chief inspector's arguments are vacuous. "They are allegations based on traditional values that may no longer be relevant."

According to Professor Colin Bell, Vice-chancellor of Bradford, there is no evidence of anything other than an upward trend in standards at Britain's universities, and the quality of teaching is high. "The students coming in are very well qualified," he says. "And we are much more explicit about what we are trying to do. The objectives of our courses are discussed exhaustively in a way that wasn't true 15 years ago."

Degrees such as golf course management can be justified because of the importance of the leisure industry to today's economy, argues Professor Bell. In some parts of the country leisure and heritage are the only industries going, so one would expect higher education to reflect such change.

Malcolm Findlay, the programme leader of the BSc in surf science and technology at Plymouth University (see box), believes that Mr Woodhead is simply ignorant of what goes on in universities. And at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Jo Miller justifies her piping course thus: graduates get good jobs; the course is intellectually rigorous; and students also learn to play the instrument.

According to Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, the chief inspector is being unfair in his criticism of vocational degrees. These degrees have their place in higher education, he argues. "We have seen a doubling of higher education places over the last decade. To keep serving up the same narrow range of degrees would not have satisfied the demand or the interest levels. We needed a much richer and more diverse range of options."

The chief inspector wants the university watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), to conduct the inquiry into standards. He believes that it should look at the standards of one degree compared with another across subject areas and institutions, and at how standards have changed over time. John Randall replies that the QAA is doing just that - and Mr Woodhead should read its work.

So, is the chief inspector right? The answer depends on your values. If you value depth of knowledge, especially in a "hard" subject such as physics, it appears that the standards of students entering the system have dropped, with knock-on effects for standards during the course. But if you are talking about the quality of the education they are getting when they arrive at university - the teaching and the thought that goes into what they learn - there is little question it has improved, say experts. Moreover, students are receiving much more vocational training.

What matters, of course, is the level of knowledge and skills required by the employers of graduates. Academics say that students today have a much better general knowledge and a higher level of social skills than they used to have. But some employers do complain about the quality of the graduates that the system is producing.

Whether an inquiry can get to the bottom of the matter is another question.