Who knows what a graduate is? Discuss

They can't spell and don't seem to know much, but still land well- paid jobs. Beyond that, says David Walker, graduates have a way of defying definition
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Standards are going to hell - didn't we see that when Birkbeck College students failed Jeremy Paxman's general knowledge test so miserably the other day? Then there was that calm, dispassionate analyst of educational statistics, the Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead, warning that A-level's gold has been tarnished.

In a society as preoccupied by decline as Britain, the movement of grades and syllabuses over time is endlessly fascinating. But there is a more important question: what are A-levels for? If we can't answer that question, their quality is irrelevant.

The obvious answer is: no A-level, no college place. But then the question becomes: what does possession of a scroll saying Bachelor of Arts signify? It is one that seems to have stumped the professors and their funding and "quality" councils. What is a graduate?

Higher education has expanded massively. There are 115 universities and 1.3 million students. Government pays for tuition, which explains why this amazing imprecision of purpose behind going to a university has gone unremarked. But now we have the London School of Economics and other academic top dogs threatening to make their undergraduates pay. That surely will concentrate the mind of students, their parents and their cash-strapped teachers alike.

The functional answer is that a graduate is someone who finds it easier to get a job than someone with a lower-level certificate. And we love credentials. Ostensibly, our kind of economy has more and more openings for people who can think/be flexible/live with uncertainty, etc. The problem is how studying the plays of Moliere for a BA in French makes you all those. Perhaps it does, but nobody seems to know quite how that degree in history, or chemistry, or even business studies with accountancy really captures these desirable qualities.

Economists, typically, do not offer much insight beyond reporting that, after the event, graduates get paid more. Inside companies, graduate recruitment is far from scientific. Talk to a big recruiter, such as the Anglo-Japanese computer company ICL - which, unlike, say, Marks and Spencer, kept its doors open during the recession. It does not want knowledge - most information technology dates quickly. It does not necessarily want skills - even spelling can be taught remedially. What it wants above all is attitude, and that turns out to be subtle blend of loyalty and a touch of (but not too much) individual spark.

University doesn't do certain vital things - this is attested by the Higher Education Quality Council's hard data as well as anecdote and the mound of badly-written job application letters from graduates that all employers will readily show you. University does not give basic numeracy, literacy, etc, because universities have never conceived it to be their direct responsibility to make sure that with the degree certificate comes the ability to spell, count or type Qwerty.

When it reported on Wednesday the Quality Council admitted, even after all its research, that it found defining a graduate terribly difficult. Yet its own existence is a result of growing anxiety about what degrees are, or rather whether the degree in English given by University College London after teaching by the London Review of Books crowd is really the same animal as the same qualification from, say, University of Wales at Swansea, where Kingsley Lucky Jim Amis once taught.

The distinction matters, though few intending students, their parents, teachers or would-be employers have much doubt about it. What matters more is that universities cannot say with any rigour just what the possession of their degree means, beyond status and a ranking in a newspaper chart.

The Higher Education Quality Council says that a graduate ought to know something. Sure: all degrees in medicine ought to equip intending doctors with the knowledge and skill to stick a needle in a patient's arm and inject the correct drug in the right amount; and a degree in law should equip would-be solicitors in the pretence that searching council planning records and all the rest of the conveyancing business requires a skill that deserves the kind of money most high-street solicitors, for all their moaning, still command.

But should all English graduates be able to identify Flintwich or other stock characters from Dickens? Should all maths graduates have mastered Galois theory? Should all sociology graduates have read The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism? Getting English scholars or mathematicians - let alone sociologists - to see eye to eye is going to be a hundred times more difficult than securing agreement over the national curriculum in schools.

A graduate ought to be self-motivated, and have acquired habits of study and concentration; have engaged with teaching and learning that themselves are informed by research and scholarship (try defining those).

But behind that lies a controversial idea: being a graduate means possessing an ability to criticise the status quo. That is just about what John Henry Newman said. For this eminent Victorian - no conservative in this respect - a university education was like acquiring a lens, a way of seeing things as they really are, a critical intellect. It somehow doesn't sound like a contemporary virtue. If one of the motors of higher education expansion has been the needs of modern corporations, public as well as private, do they really want bolshie BAs? No wonder you hear Brian Fender of the Higher Education Funding Council extolling attitudes positive to wealth creation.

Lionel Robbins, who in the early Sixties put his name to the great expansion report, said universities were about strengthening powers of mind, imbuing students with a common culture and common standards of citizenship. Graduates do share in a common culture, but it is probably not one that Lord Robbins or the Tory ministers who have presided over expansion since would recognise.

The latest British Social Attitudes survey showed a strong correlation between having a degree and a liberal, tolerant outlook - on drugs, sex on the screen, homosexuality, abortion. Going to university does seem to open minds in a non-judgmental, understanding kind of way.

Since the attitudes survey also showed that those who had sampled cannabis were much more likely to want the drug decriminalised, maybe we are talking about a common university experience. To be a graduate means to have smoked the weed ... before spending the entire corporate graduate induction programme denying you ever inhaled.