Leading article: The second wave of the revolution in universities

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:21

A government survey of students has delivered a rather surprising result. It shows a growing number of students in UK universities are concerned that studying for a degree may not increase their employability, particularly if the numbers drawn into higher education each year continue to increase. We are so used to hearing that university is the best route to employment that it is a little confusing to hear that students themselves are apparently questioning the wisdom of this assertion. And there is more cause for confusion. Yesterday, the higher education adjudicator revealed that complaints by students against their universities have risen for a third year. Something is clearly going on in higher education; student attitudes are changing and so, inexorably, is the shape of our university sector.

A revolution has taken place in higher education in recent years. The old universal provision of funding has been replaced with a system of variable tuition fees. This was always going to entail two successive waves of turbulence. The first wave was the opposition of students who objected to being asked to pay for something that was previously considered "free" (although in fact the bill was always picked up by the taxpayer). That storm now seems to have been weathered by ministers. The prospect of tuition fees being dismantled by a future government seems unlikely.

The second wave was predicted to be greater pressure on the universities to improve their performance, with students realising that, since they are paying for a service with their own (future) earnings, it is in their direct interest today to make sure they get value for money. We are now embarking on the second wave.

And we should welcome it. Universities are being required to sharpen up their act by students who have a clearer expectation of what they want personally from higher education. This is the quid pro quo for allowing the universities to levy fees and gain more control over their destinies: they must now treat students as investors with rights, rather than mere academic fodder to be processed in the pursuit of state funding.

As for the fears of students that increased numbers of participants in higher education could undermine the value of their degree, there is a grain of truth here, but it misses the bigger picture. The Government's target of getting 50 per cent of school leavers to university by the end of this decade, come hell or high water, has always been an aspiration moulded more by politics than any academic or economic strategy. The relatively high university drop-out rate in recent years does suggest that a minority of students have been encouraged to sign up for unsuitable courses. Another consequence of this rather indiscriminate influx is that the value of being awarded a degree has decreased somewhat in the eyes of employers. What matters more in the job market now is the quality of the qualification and the issuing academic institution.

Yet it would be quite wrong to conclude from this that it is not worth attending university. It remains the case that higher education and training are still the best routes to employment opportunities and prosperity. Rather than shooting at arbitrary targets, ministers should concentrate on making sure that the advantages of universities are as widely known as possible in schools. If they do, they will have the advantage of going with the grain. Recent demand for "value for money" and concern about the advantage a degree confers in the market place is unlikely to be a sign that students are falling out of love with university. On the contrary, it shows that young people are finally beginning to put a proper price on education. Rather than confused, we should be proud.

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