LEADER : A dunces' debate

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Five decades of debate and they still don't get it. For a month now the comment columns of the press have been stuffed with polemics denying the consequences of this country's stumbling transition to a modern higher education system. More people are passing A-levels? - they are being devalued. New universities? - just the old second-rate polys with flash logos. And this week's outrage: foundation courses for students without A-levels? - "universities for failures".

It was all inevitable. For most of the post-war period two facts sat uncomfortably alongside each other. The first was that a British university education was to a higher standard than that of most other countries. The second was that the proportion of school-leavers entering higher education in Britain was one of the smallest in the advanced world. Eventually, the decision was taken - as it had to be - in favour of a serious expansion of post-school education. The old system would have to change.

The gatekeeper to this narrow world was the A-level, with numbers allowed to pass at a high grade kept broadly in line with the restricted numbers of university places. But the democratisation of higher education (mostly engineered by Conservative governments) meant there was a choice: either to abolish the A-level in favour of a new set of qualifications, or to keep it (in name at least) and let it do a new job alongside a range of other qualifications. The government chose the latter. As a result, A- levels today are indeed "not what they were". Instead of measuring the fitness of an elite, they now bestow qualifications upon the many who want and need higher education.

It is important that any academic qualification has a knowable and consistent quality if it is to be hard currency in an ever more demanding careers market. But that should not mean that those who flunk school are out of the game. There can be no immutable chronological progression from school to college to work.

The reaction to the news of foundation courses offering flunkers a chance to obtain the start-out qualifications required to undertake a degree course has been instructive. The Daily Telegraph talks of universities "becoming remedial institutions, taking students who would previously not be considered university material". "Universities for dunces", sneers the Daily Express.

And what of our Education Secretary? She has set up an inquiry. She could see that foundation courses were a good idea for mature students, but was worried about their being provided for 18-year-olds. "It is a school's job to prepare students for university studies, not a university's," she said.

Why, Mrs Shephard, why? What rule, what imperative demands that an 18- year-old, who may have understood rather late the importance of qualifications, should not have another chance? What is to be gained by waiting until they are 28, 38 or 48?

There is, of course, no gain. It merely demonstrates the sickly nature of our national education debate, still struggling for roots between the right's nostalgic elitism and the left's inclination to deny the importance of setting, measuring and communicating standards of performance. Both positions sit smugly with one of our worst national characteristics, reflected in business as well as education, which sees failure as an absolute rather than an opportunity to rebuild and reinvent. We can, indeed we must, put this nonsense behind us.

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