Personally speaking

Martin Stephen
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The Independent Online
Politicians, and at least one schoolteacher, apparently do not see the same world when they look at universities. No manifesto has mentioned the new world of our universities, or the newer world into which they are heading.

We now have an Ivy League of 16 or 17 Universities: Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Exeter, King's College London, Leeds, London School of Economics, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Oxford, University College London, Warwick and York. Sheffield is coming up fast on the outside track.

These define themselves by the offers they make to students, which are higher than those made by any other universities. The Scottish universities are under-represented because of their local recruitment. Other universities may have the best department of any in a given field, but do not set the same standard overall.

The list has little to do with the old orthodoxy of university excellence, or with research ratings. It is all to do with the popularity of the universities with students. It greatly favours universities that have a beautiful, separate campus but also access to all the excitement of a big city, such as Birmingham and Nottingham. The standing of the city with young people is crucial, as with Manchester.

Popularity is geographic. Money means that students want to go somewhere away from home, but near enough to allow for getting the washing done or letting Mum take them to the supermarket. Universities on the central spine of the country - Leeds, Nottingham, Birmingham, Warwick - with good communication links are increasingly popular. They can recruit from all four corners.

This Ivy League has been a fact for some years, though it is hard luck for any student or parent who wishes to know about it from any published source. Two further facts are also denied them.

The first is that a significant number of the degrees from the "new" universities are not worth the investment placed in them by students, by their families, or by society as a whole. The second is the lack of care taken in the training of students for the wider issues of university life.

Drop-out rates can be savage. Academically, many courses are so demanding that the student has the time to learn and acquire only the necessary knowledge, and no time to learn how to learn and work efficiently. Lucky the students who went to a "good" school that taught them how to work; heaven help those who did not.

Socially, many students are inadequately prepared for the loneliness that affects so many of them when they are plucked out of a safe environment that they have lived in for 18 years, and plunged into a wholly new environment. We are as guilty as the general who sends his troops into battle without training. The result is the same: far too many casualties.

Even more frightening, and unpublicised, is where we seem to be heading. We cannot afford our present university system. The result is a creeping revolution in higher education that is being insinuated into society. Students will pay for all their costs, tuition as well as maintenance. A system of loans will do nothing to make university a realistic possibility for many students from poor or deprived homes.

Those same students will be required to live at home and go to their "home" university. With guaranteed entry, the quality of some of those universities will decline as they are presented with a monopoly. A few universities - including the Ivy League above - are likely to be designated "research universities", the remainder "teaching universities". The latter will be second-class institutions producing second-class graduates - yet cynically we will continue to claim that we educate up to 30 per cent of students to degree level.

University will return to being a middle-class preserve. The quality of education a student receives will be decided by where he lives. Many young people will be seduced into spending precious time on qualifications that will be worth next to nothing.

True? Or just a nightmare? It would be easier to decide if politicians and academics spoke more often in public about what privately so many of them seem to acceptn

Dr Stephen is High Master of Manchester Grammar School.