LEADER : A dunces' debate

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

£850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

£100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

Day In a Page

Read Next
Former N-Dubz singer Tulisa Contostavlos gives a statement outside Southwark Crown Court after her trial  

It would be wrong to compare brave Tulisa’s ordeal with phone hacking. It’s much worse than that

Matthew Norman
The Big Society Network was assessed as  

What became of Cameron's Big Society Network?

Oliver Wright
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary