Martin Stephen: Quick decision needed: a place of learning or a finishing school? or

A commission should decide what proportion go to university
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The Independent Online

It's the dumbing down of the universities, not of A-levels, that we need to worry about. As with the earth and global warming, our universities are rapidly approaching or may even have gone beyond a stage where irrevocable damage will have been done to them.

Look in to a crystal ball and you can get a worse shock than Pip did when he looked in to one in Lord of the Rings. An entirely credible future is a university system dominated by 10 or so "top" universities which have become so fed up with government interference over their academic freedom and finance as to have declared UDI and become private institutions, gaining their fee-paying entry from overseas and relatively wealthy UK students who can afford top prices for a top degree. Fifty per cent of school leavers attend not a university of their choice, but live at home and are compelled to attend their local university whatever its standard. That university is known as a "teaching" university. A fortunate few are allowed to attend élite "research" universities. Those in the "teaching" universities do a two-year course, to save them and the government money, and of course are not taught by the leaders in their field. Many leave with degrees that offer employers little, and teacher-student contact time is minimal. More students read for degrees with "studies" in their title, and few take physics, chemistry, maths or modern languages, subjects which form the core fuel of any fired-up knowledge economy. Fewer students from poor backgrounds than ever attend university.

Much of the problem springs from politicians realising that headline figures for the number of students attending university are real vote-winners. The story goes that a former PM was so excited when someone suggested at a social gathering that 50 per cent of young people should attend university that he wrote it down on the back of an envelope and made it a (private) policy aspiration. From that target spring many ills in the sector at present. Firstly, there has been no formal research either into how many undergraduates we need and the job market can take, nor how many we can afford. We simply do not have the money to provide a proper university-level education for half the 18-year-olds in the country. Secondly, we cannot maintain a world-class standard at universities if final degree examinations have to be passed by 50 per cent of the cohort. Thirdly, it is a buyer's market, and students flock into courses that are perceived either as fun or easy. Fourthly, we have eroded the academic freedom of universities to take their own decisions on their own areas of expertise, and put politicians and electoral advantage in charge.

If it's not too late the answer is to set up immediately an independent commission to decide what proportion of young people in an advanced industrial Western democracy should attend university, and how many we can afford to have in higher education. Perhaps even more urgently, we need to decide what a university is. Is it somewhere that justifies its existence by research and pays for that by educating undergraduates of high ability? Is it somewhere where society has a right to dictate how many students study which subjects, or is it a consumer-led, free market? Or is it a way of keeping young people off the job market for longer, a local tertiary college offering two more years' study to school leavers and something whose qualification equates more to a diploma than a conventional degree? In short, not much more than a finishing school.

Martin Stephen is High Master of St Paul's School, London

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