Leading article: The benefits of a market in teaching and learning

Share

These past few weeks have not reflected well on the state of higher education in this country. Figures released on Wednesday revealed a stark drop in the numbers applying for places at English universities. They also showed a fall in those applying to study history, philosophy, classics and fine art. These disappointing figures follow a survey of businesses revealing that many graduates lack the basic skills needed for employment. All this might suggest that the Government's higher education policy is in crisis. Some blame tuition fees; others the Government's ambitious admission targets. But both miss the point.

It must be recognised, first of all, that whatever problems tuition fees have thrown up, the decision to introduce them was correct. Our universities must be able to compete internationally - and if our top institutions are to hold their against the US Ivy League, the £3,000 limit on fees will have to be raised. Without a steady revenue stream, they will lapse into decline.

The recent criticisms of employers appear at first to support the philistine view expressed by the Higher Education minister, Bill Rammell, this week that fewer humanities students would be "no bad thing". But a closer look shows that the complaints of employers are not about particular subjects, but the general failings of some graduates in reading, writing and organisational skills. If some students are really so inept, they should never have been awarded degrees in the first place. What these criticisms expose is the inability of certain universities to impose proper standards.

Mr Rammell is not the first minister to make disparaging remarks about arts courses. But we must not fall into the trap of regarding higher education as simply vocational training. The benefits of university are more subtle than the Government seems to appreciate. Professional training is, naturally, an aspect of some degree courses. But the principle of "education for education's sake" still holds. The acquisition of transferable skills is one of the reasons graduates, on average, earn more. And the US shows that the humanities can still flourish in a competitive, fee-paying system.

But, of course, the US system is no panacea. College education there is not the engine for social mobility it ought to be. And although we do not approve of the Government's arbitrary 50 per cent target for school-leavers going on to higher education, we agree that there must be an expansion of the numbers. The Prime Minister is right to insist that there should be more students from working-class backgrounds.

We recognise, too, that there is a downside to tuition fees in that they deter those who fear running up debt (mainly the less wealthy). This is responsible for distortions, such as the number of students flocking to Scotland, which has held out against tuition fees. In time, though, if the market system is allowed to take root, these distortions should disappear. And when the cost of a degree reflects its true true worth, we are confident that higher education will still be seen as a good investment. In the meantime, the Government must make far greater efforts to encourage the creation of a generous bursary system to attract poorer students.

Some see higher education as a zero-sum game in which only a small number of people can benefit. This is not the case. Fifty years ago, our universities educated a tiny elite. But our country and its economy have changed enormously. And so has the rest of the world. Britain needs a well-financed, socially open and globally competitive higher education sector. Those who argue that it is impossible to achieve such a combination are languishing in complacent pessimism.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: When is a baroness not a baroness? Titles still cause confusion

Guy Keleny
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?