Leading article: The heavy price paid when learning becomes a commodity

The result of the White Paper could be rampant grade inflation and a loss of academic standards

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There are some good proposals in the new White Paper on higher education. Perhaps the best is that students should have better information on universities before they apply.It spells out what they should be told: how much direct contact time they will have with staff; what qualifications and expertise their teachers have; what previous students thought of the place; what accommodation costs locally; what qualifications previous students obtained and what they went on to earn. All this, to quote one eloquent student leader, is the lipstick on the pig.

The lipstick could be improved. Students might benefit from also being told about drop-out rates. Or whether the star academics on the university website ever show up in the lecture halls. And they might learn more from knowing what previous graduates earned several years after graduation rather than just six months.

So much for the lipstick. But what of the pig itself? The suggestions in the White Paper that greater competition is needed in the university sector could constitute the most radical shake-up in higher education yet. Under the plans, existing universities will compete with for-profit education companies and further education colleges whose students could be awarded degrees. Top universities will compete in a virtual auction for students with AAB grades at A-level grades which should ensure that no really able students is denied a place. Universities and higher education colleges at the other end of the scale – charging perhaps below £6,000 a year – will be allowed to increase their numbers. But what of the squeezed middle, where instability and confusion could follow?

The Government's plan is to create a wider market in universities. But this is the wrong way of going about it. The Coalition is bringing in its changes in higher education too rapidly. It has slashed higher education funding by 80 per cent and then told universities to charge higher fees. When they did so, the Government panicked, realising it had cut so much that every institution either needed to charge the maximum, or did not want to declare itself inferior by not doing so. But the changes now proposed to force down the cost of a degree will add to the problem, not alleviate it.

The fear must be that quality will suffer under this plan, with universities offering more of the courses which can be run cheaply at the expense of more costly science and engineering subjects. Private institutions, like A C Grayling's half-baked £18,000-a-year New College of the Humanities, which will piggy-back on mainstream publicly-funded universities, will inevitably emphasise these cheaper-to-run courses. Allowing students in receipt of state loans to attend such colleges will only exacerbate that problem. The contention of the universities minister, David Willetts, that British universities are already in the private sector is disingenuous since they receive substantial amounts of public funding, directly and indirectly.

The plans will drive up fees and bring dependence on unstable capital markets, according to the University and College Union, which notes that private-sector education in the US has seen college fees grow at four times the rate of inflation over the last 25 years. And the Higher Education Funding Council for England has warned that this approach could place existing universities at financial risk, jeopardising the whole of their provision, including that which private providers would see no advantage in offering. The result could be rampant grade inflation and downwards pressures on academic standards. This White Paper is a piece with this Government's general approach to higher education to date. It is slapdash and reckless.

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