Quality control is arguably effective but a source of much confusion

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STANDARDS IN COLLEGES

The article about colleges which want to be universities ("They keep on knocking, but they can't come in", Education+, 8 January) gives the impression that degree standards have been falling and that standards in the colleges are, or may be perceived to be, inferior to those in the universities.

The Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC) carried out an extensive programme of research into degree standards. The Council found no clear evidence that they had fallen, nor did the Dearing Committee. What the Council did recommend was that each institution should take steps to make clear to students and others what the standards of its awards are, and the assumptions on which they are based. It also proposed various ways in which institutions could demonstrate the continuing appropriateness of those standards.

Similarly, HEQC found no evidence to suggest that degree courses in the colleges are inferior to those in the universities, rather the contrary. Each of the colleges which the Council advised should receive degree awarding powers had quality controls at least as rigorous as the majority of universities, if not more so. Perception should not be confused with reality.

Roger Brown

Chief Executive HEQC 1993-1997

Your article on "wannabe" universities adds to my perplexity about the current state of UK universities. What sort of situation exists when a non-university in Bolton produces 15 PhDs in a year? Who were the internationally- recognised scholars who supervised their theses? And is one university (or even non-university) degree as good as another? Why were all these instant universities created? The existing polytechnics were mostly good institutions doing a worthwhile job; why change them?

I write as a long-range observer and an Oxbridge graduate of the 1950s. Perhaps people in higher education in the UK are happy with the current state of things, but it seems to me that Britain is aping the worst features of the American university and college system, with its superabundance of inferior places that give degrees in almost any subject. Small wonder that a British version of the Ivy League is emerging!

Dr James Dale

Ontario, Canada

FALLING APPLICATIONS TO UNIVERSITY

Peter Scott's article ("View From Here", Education+ 8 January) is a valid analysis of the reasons for the dearth of university applicants but I suggest it must be placed in the wider context of post-secondary/high school progression if its significance is to be fully apparent.

Until recently, school leavers went on to "free" further education, took up employment or joined the unemployed where efforts to find work varied greatly. Unemployment benefit was superseded by the "job-seeking" scheme and this has recently been amplified to compel youngsters to undertake additional education/ training or alternatively one of three categories of employment. The position now seems to be that potential graduates who are unable to incur the pounds l,000 contribution will join the "job seekers", taking the best of the nevertheless inferior jobs there available. We shall find that the pool of job-seeking youngsters is fed by a stream of undergraduate material which will presumably become an elite layer to be creamed off, the result being a much larger pool of job-seekers which will become an even heavier burden on the state.

For an interim partial solution, I suggest that a sizeable portion of the windfall tax would be better spent on effectively funding undergraduates rather than being used to subsidise employers. For instance, the pounds l,000 charge could simply be dropped. Alternatively, technologically useful degree studies could be exempted from charge while more exotic but less utilitarian subjects could call for a suitable contribution from the student.

TR Taylor

Stafford

OXBRIDGE INTERVIEWS

If Ann Duncombe (Your Views, Education+, 8 January) had foregone the pleasures of moral indignation long enough to read what I said, she would have seen that I made two points only: the first that it is as hard for comprehensive schools to teach pupils the skills they need in interviews as it is to teach them for entrance examinations, and the second that it is hard to tell from an interview how good students will be at almost any subject, especially one they haven't studied at school. It is only because we try so hard to do justice between one candidate and another that I was complaining in the first place. If we didn't care, there'd be nothing to complain about. I'm sorry if Ms Duncombe's son had a bad time a decade and a half ago, but they don't license her to impute to me views I wouldn't be seen dead with.

Still, I do think that interviews are a poor way of choosing students - written work is a much better guide to their talents. In the case of the young woman in question, I was very far from supposing she wasn't worth a place. What I said, and what I meant, was that I couldn't tell on the strength of the interview whether she'd make a good philosopher. Her written work was excellent; she is obviously a young woman of great energy and intelligence; we have offered her a place, and if she gets the grades we have asked her for, she will come here in due course. And I shall be extremely pleased. If she had not got in, however, as three out of four applicants did not, she, like them, would have flourished somewhere else - a reason for some cheerfulness rather than an outbreak of "yah, boo, sucks".

Alan Ryan

The Warden,

New College, Oxford

BOYS' PERFORMANCE

I think the attitudes of some primary school teachers towards the gender of their pupils needs some attention. The year six boys, of whom my son is one, at our local small school have been doing a "tell off count".

The result for the first three days of term is; boys 44, girls 1. The boys have long since given up trying to please.

Valerie Daly

Bodmin, Cornwall

If we want to improve the academic performance of boys in the immediate future ,one thing that needs to be done urgently is to postpone the forthcoming World Cup for a month or two, as it is currently scheduled to coincide with the next exam period.

No wonder boys don't stand a chance!

Bruce Lloyd, London

Please send your letters to Wendy Berliner, Editor, Education+, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL. Include a daytime telephone number. Fax letters to Education+

on 0171-293 2451; e-mail: educ@independent.co.uk

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