`These figures are more about distracting us with bathwater than showing us the baby'

THE EXTRAORDINARY thing about the university performance indicators published last week was that they carried no mention of entry qualifications. While drop-out levels, social background and schools attended were featured, previous attainment, which puts the "higher" into higher education, was nowhere to be seen.

It's not that the details are not known. Bahram Bekhradnia, head of policy at the Higher Education Funding Council (England), has demonstrated that drop-out rates are almost linearly, but inversely, related to A-level scores. There are also correlations between student attainment at entry and both social class and whether one attended a selective school.

The omission of the vital entry data denies us the opportunity to make sense of the other numbers and see higher education as it really is.

We thus have the absurd situation of the University of East London being celebrated for widening access, but shamed for massive drop-out, while Cambridge is berated for apparently showing social class and school bias, but applauded for its high completion rate.

With entry qualifications included, it would immediately be obvious that Britain has been trying to do the impossible in higher education: to move to a mass system by merely scaling up something designed for a selected few.

The old British university system controlled quality at the point of entry and, through a high threshold, was able to educate students to a high standard in a short period of time with few drop-outs. In fact, some higher education had been transferred to the sixth form (and hence some of the complaints about the specialisation of A-levels). Because only small numbers were involved, the taxpayer could afford to be generous and meet not only fees but living costs.

It worked wonderfully well for those chosen, but failed the other 90 per cent. It was therefore wholly right to create greater educational opportunity; but wholly wrong to assume that this could be achieved by scaling up what was already there.

The consequences come tumbling out of the tables in spite of obscurantism. The universities are being asked to take a much wider ability range, less well-prepared, and keep up completion rates at the old degree standard, still within three years - and all on less money. They are also under financial pressure to fill all their places.

With 60 per cent now going on to university at some stage, the taxpayer is no longer able to meet all the costs and the Government has had to scrap maintenance grants and introduce tuition fees. Students without financial support from home, and admitted on lower entry qualifications, have to keep up with their courses and hold body and soul together.

Clearly something has had to give. Students are drawn in, faced with unrealistic demands and then spat out. But it is likely that the standing of the degree is suffering also. If universities are to be hauled over the coals about drop-out rates, it is only natural that they should be tempted to massage them down by lowering requirements.

Sooner or later the Government will have to stop batting on about inclusion, postcodes and selective schools, and address the essentials of real higher educational opportunity; the chance to engage in high-quality advanced learning. The Open University has been marvellously successful in showing how open access can be squared with top-class achievement.

The key is flexibility. The present Government seems to want to tie the universities in a straitjacket. It appears to want them to operate to the same qualifications and standards, to have the same lengths of courses, to have the same social mix, and to charge the same fees. It should have the courage to stand back and allow them to develop in different ways.

The universities should be left to concentrate on identifying and developing talents, free from the silliness of the Quality Assurance Agency. They should be allowed to develop courses of different lengths to meet different needs and, crucially, they should be permitted to price their courses to generate income. The Government could secure the state's interest through, say, merit scholarships and grants for the socially disadvantaged.

The present system is so obviously out of kilter you would think the Government was bound to act soon. But the signs are not good. Its statistics seem designed to conceal rather than reveal. The performance indicators which it has allowed the HEFC to publish, minus entry qualifications, seem more about distracting us with bathwater than giving us a good look at the baby.

The writer is Sydney Jones Professor of Education and the Director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Liverpool

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
i100
News
Budapest, 1989. Sleepware and panties.
newsDavid Hlynsky's images of Soviet Union shop windows shine a light on our consumerist culture
News
In humans, the ability to regulate the expression of genes through thoughts alone could open up an entirely new avenue for medicine.
science
News
Williams says: 'The reason I got jobs was because they would blow the budget on the big guys - but they only had to pay me the price of a cup of tea'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Tradewind Recruitment: KS2 Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is a two form entry primary schoo...

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee