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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Peter Mandelson first resigned from the cabinet on 23 December 1998  

2015's dim-sum index has too many courses

John Rentoul
 

I'm just as merry without a drink, thank you

Fiona Sturges
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015