Education: Play fantasy league academia now!

`New' universities have a problem: some people think that they're no good. But watch out - these places are aiming for the top of the table
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When my boozom pals sneer at Crewe Alexandra's position in the First Division (bottom), my options are limited: there's no arguing the toss with a Football League Table. Trouble is, my fellow propper-uppers think - thought - that there is a University League Table as well. That was because some of the papers (not this one, thankfully) keep publishing something they call "University League Tables". Fantasy ain't in it. What is so irritating, if you're sure you don't mind me understating it like this, is that some of us are getting nul points for teaching, even though the busies from the assessment body in question have yet to turn up on our terraces.

Of course, there aren't any new universities as good as Cambridge: yet. It would be a scandal - for Cambridge - if there were, given the start it's had. What we are doing, in double-quick time, is closing the gap to serve those who weren't part of the alliterative, if inaccurate (only 18-year-olds were involved) "top 2 per cent" of yesteryear.

For most of my working life, the world has laughed at British industry, while beating a path to its higher education system - which, ironically, has only recently expanded sufficiently to serve its home market. In 1996/97 there were nearly 1.8 million students in the UK's 182 higher education institutions. Sensibly, the Higher Education Statistics Agency declines to give a sub-total for the "new" (i.e. post-1992) universities, because of the mergers that have subsequently taken place across the old divide. Come to that, neither do they bother totting up the numbers in the old university colleges (as they were until the Fifties), or the colleges of advanced technology (universities since the Sixties).

If Eton is better than Slough Comprehensive, the latter may still be a good school: the real question is whether the "new" - under another name we'd been quietly picking up the surplus since the Seventies - universities are good enough. The only real threat to our graduates is that their parents, their employers, and themselves, might be fooled into thinking that they aren't. But why shouldn't Neasden, Penge and Rotherham have universities, and why shouldn't people come from all over the world to study at them? (In 1996/97 over 11 per cent of higher education students were from overseas, contributing nicely to our balance of payments, but no longer denying places to our own people.) Only two things matter: how many universities do we need to serve the number of people capable of benefiting from them; and how good that service is.

As regards the number, we need a few more yet. Our schools still aren't finding out what each child is good at, we've got lots of people in the workforce who want to better themselves, a growing retired population, and a lot of people, like those living in Cornwall for example, with no university within easy travelling distance.

Good service? Why not ask the present generation of, say, lawyers who probably completed the post-graduate stage of their education at one of the "new" universities, whose unique tradition of rigorous course validation proved rather better at satisfying the demands of the professional bodies. This year, for example, more than 94 per cent of the 5,000-plus students on the Legal Practice Course - the last year in the classroom for would- be solicitors - are at "new" universities. And it is an open secret that the de luxe firms favour one particular "new" place for their trainees.

When hardly anyone had a degree, neither the haves nor the have- nots felt threatened by those who did. When I was but a beardless youth, delivered protesting to one of the handful of such places then extant, courtesy of parental influence, some of us thought we actually were the top 2 per cent: a delusion that could persist for several minutes after we started work. Twenty-one year-olds, made for life. How very different from the present lot: women (now over half of all "home" undergraduates), oldies (26 per cent of even full time undergraduates are over 21), and even the working class, many of them ethnics (13 per cent of all first year home undergraduates). Most of them have to work while they study - you have to pay for it these days - and not just gentle vacation stuff to finance those three months hitching round America in the summer, either.

Some of them even have to work all day, every day, to support their families, forcing them to sneak into one of these "new" places in the dark for rather more than three years. Just under 25,000 part-timers made it to a graduation ceremony in 1997 and, if employers know what's good for them, those oldies were over-represented in the 62 per cent of 1997 graduates who got jobs.

But, of course, these new places just give degrees away, and in strange new non-subjects at that. They actually tried things like computing, management and business studies, while their betters were sticking to the traditional rigours of sociology. Sadly, drearily, it actually take some time, effort and expertise to evaluate degree courses. First you need to read pages of course proposals, syllabi, booklists, assessment regulations and tutor curriculae vitorum. Ultimately, you might even have a look at how their graduates do subsequently, always provided they manage to get jobs after their education has been condemned, sight unseen.

Still not convinced? Then come to one of our open days for undergraduate courses. They're better than those at the "old(er)" universities. They have to be. We don't take you for granted.

The writer is Professor of Family Law at Staffordshire University and Director of the Centre for the Study of the Family, Law and Social Policy