Education: Politicians, please keep out

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ONE THING is certain about the revelations at Thames Valley University: they are only the tip of the iceberg. The problems of under-resourced courses, too-rapid expansion, under-qualified students and falling academic standards are endemic in British higher education. Hard-pressed university chiefs are essentially the victims of financial constraints imposed upon them; the perpetrators are the politicians whose policies oblige many institutions to recruit indiscriminately so as to balance the books. In this respect New Labour is but old Tory writ large. Indeed, the current Secretary of State's aim is to increase student numbers by a further 500,000. What possible rationale can there be for inflicting this upon a system so obviously unable to cope with the reckless expansion of recent years?

Half a million is a suspiciously round figure, plucked out of the air with a view to boosting political reputations, one suspects, rather than achieving serious educational goals. Yes, one is told, investment in education yields economic dividends. Have Mr Blunkett and his civil servants actually produced a detailed economic justification for the extra students? They trade on the uncritical assumption that more education is good for the economy. No doubt Third World economies derive benefits from infusions of trained administrators, scientists and engineers. But is the same automatically true for a sophisticated western economy?

Much depends on the type of expansion. Is there convincing evidence that the increase in recruitment in recent years actually matches the requirements of the British economy? The economy can only absorb limited numbers of students from leisure, media or business studies; though ostensibly vocational, such courses are often not a passport to employment. Even in traditional subjects over-supply has become a serious problem, as witness the many qualified law students desperately scrambling for articles. Unhappily the British economy is now getting seriously out of balance - we have, for example, five times as many accountants as Germany.

The optimists counter by saying that most students eventually get jobs. Which may be true; but increasingly graduates end up accepting employment for which they are over-qualified, and in the process they simply displace others lower down the line. The economic benefits of this are far from clear. At the very least we would need a much more buoyant economy to absorb the graduates generated.

Can it be right therefore, for institutions to offer degree places to students capable of only E and D grades at A level to fill up courses? Although this points inexorably to contraction in higher education, some expansion could be justified on economic grounds. The expansion of higher education is simply not driven by rational economic objectives. On the contrary, it is designed to burnish the statistics, add another paragraph to a politician's CV, and swell another paragraph in a party manifesto.


Professor of Modern History

University of Newcastle

No to ranked lists

PROFESSOR DOYLE suggests that degree classes should be scrapped and replaced by a single ranked list. As Chair of the Board of Studies in Mathematics and Computing at the University of Liverpool I have been involved with examiners' meetings for the last few years.

There may be some challenges with the awarding of degree classes and maybe transcripts are the answer. However, we believe that two students who get marks of 75.3 per cent and 75.2 per cent are first-class students and we would not support the idea that one is better than the other. Am I right in thinking that mathematicians have less confidence in the absolute value of an examination mark than our non-mathematical colleagues?

There are a number of problems with ranked lists. If a ranked list were placed on the noticeboard how soon would it be before someone drew three horizontal lines on it and labelled the four parts as I, II-1, II-2, III and a student claiming a first better than that of another student?

Second, pure numbers do not take account of extenuating circumstances. Would marks have to be assigned to medical certificates?

Classifying degrees uses performance criteria other than the ranked list. We regard it as completely unacceptable to reveal one student's marks to another student. A ranked list would give a student a rough idea what mark another student received.

What would Professor Doyle do in the case where an error was found after the examiners' meeting had been held and the lists published? Would he issue a new list?



Board of Studies in Mathematics and Computing

Theoretical Physics Division,

Department of

Mathematical Sciences

University of Liverpool.

Beware the vitriol

YOU REPORT (Education, 23 November) a study of 265 students by Woodfield and Saunders of the University of Sussex which found that a higher proportion of women than men got good degrees, but a high proportion of the men got firsts. This echoes findings based on far larger numbers - all the graduates of British universities in the years 1967, 1978 and 1979 - which I published in 1984.

I suggested tentatively that more of the men than the women were failing to conform to the behaviour expected of them by doing too little work, and so were getting poor degrees, and also that there was a link to some research on IQs which concluded that, at the genius and near-genius level of intelligence, there were some women, but there were, to a small extent, disproportionately more men, which could explain the larger proportion of firsts going to men.

My article drew vitriolic rejoinders which sought, by circular reasoning, to show that the shortfall of women gaining firsts was due the bias of the examiners - both male and female. This could be true - it is as difficult to disprove as to prove - but these authors never showed why those biased examiners were giving women such a high proportion of upper-second class degrees.

I wish the Sussex researchers well, but advise them to send any suspicious packages to the bomb disposal squad.



Stop knocking the teachers

I WAS interested in the recent controversy concerning Ofsted, including the survey conducted by the NAHT and more especially by the Chief Inspector's characteristically cold and unfeeling reaction to it.

In 28 years of teaching I am yet to meet a teacher who does not care about the progress and welfare of the children. Teachers certainly do not come into the job for any financial gain but in my experience work extremely hard to do whatever they can to support our future generations. To listen to the apparently humourless Mr Woodhead you would imagine that schools are overrun with incompetents who care little for their pupils and deserve only to be treated with disdain.

Ofsted may well lead to greater accountability, an avalanche of statistics with which to sneer at a caring profession and yet more evidence to back up political point scoring, but to treat many dedicated teachers in such a cavalier and insensitive way and to make their dubious findings public does not, in my opinion, foster the ethos I would wish to create in my school.



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