Personally speaking

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The Independent Online
Politicians know that no one ever lost a vote by kicking a teacher, nor by playing to the inverted snobbery involved in impugning academic success. When hardly anyone had a degree neither those who did nor those who didn't felt threatened. But now, both sides want to feel that degrees are either being given away or are BA (Toilet Cleaning) or both, if conferred by those jumped-up technical colleges.

Giving them away? Most Examination Board members would die rather than bestow on others what they got for themselves, let alone give them anything better. The truth is that in recent years degrees have been harder earned and more valuable than ever before. They are harder-earned because few students are truly "full-time" any more. Many of them are either working to pay for their studies or are supporting families and jobs. There are still those who think that undergraduate education is about a few 18-year-olds swapping cities for three years, or, even worse, they wish that it still were. In the main, degree success is more valuable than it was because assessment methods are more - not less - demanding. Which is more useful? Four three-hour periods a year, handwriting answers to unseen questions from memory without consultation? Or doing more demanding work properly and more often? Many students now experience both: exams and course work.

BA (Toilet Cleaning)? Let's take theatre studies, a current demon, and apparently even more sneerworthy than media studies. Whether any one such course is any good can only be discovered from its details: content, curriculum, teaching and learning methods, assessment and, ultimately, from how well its graduates do afterwards, given the chance. Just like French and physics in fact.

Jumped-up technical colleges? (Actually the place I'm at was probably at its most distinguished at the beginning of the century, when it was Stoke Mining College and famous all over the world.) But these places change, just like those University Colleges and colleges of advanced technology which became universities in the Fifties and Sixties. There are more, better-equipped buildings. Most of my colleagues are far better qualified than the people who taught me at a redbrick in the 1960s. And we had been teaching undergraduates for two decades or more before we became universities in the 1990s. That is why we became universities. Yet we still keep them open for business after tea when our colleagues in the older universities have long since gone home. Then we do the night shift, mopping up some of the 98 per cent of past generations who didn't do it the easy way when they were 18 .

The author is professor of family law at Staffordshire University.