The time has come to ignite a debate about the real purpose of universities in the UK. I believe passionately that universities should be about the advancement of knowledge, and the pursuit of excellence in research and teaching; they are not just about further education for the masses. All too often universities in the UK are seen primarily in terms of their contribution to the economy. The incorporation of higher education within the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills during the government reorganisation of 2009 is just one symptom of how such thinking has pervaded not only government, but also the private sector and the public at large. All too often, charging fees for students is justified on the basis that graduates earn on average more than those without degrees. Yet recent research based on figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggests that many graduates do not actually add to their earning power by going to university (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/article6832285.ece).
The OECD has long promoted the myth that there is something magical about a country having 50% of its population participating in higher education for the well being of the economy. This is largely justified on macro-economic evidence suggesting a correlation between the percentages of a population who have been to university and GDP per capita. However, the existence of such a correlation does not mean that having larger cohort percentages in higher education actually leads to greater economic growth; far from it, it can equally well mean that higher economic growth enables more people to afford to go to university!
In the late 1980s, the UK graduation rate was around 20%, and the government was eager to increase participation both for social and for economic reasons. By 2004, the rate had risen to 39%, but government funding had not kept pace, leading to the familiar crisis of funding in UK higher education today. Public spending on university education in Britain is just 0.9% of GDP, which is well below Sweden’s at 1.6% (for a 40% participation rate) and the US’s at 2.9% percent (for a 37% participation rate) (figures from OECD’s Education at a Glance 2009 indicators).
What, though, is the evidence that having such percentages in higher education is indeed of benefit either to the individuals or the country, especially if we cannot afford to fund it properly? Here, I wish to raise four issues that seem to me to be of particular importance:
- Charging students fees for higher education is socially divisive and distorts the labour market. UK students already now graduate with an average debt of around £21,000, and this figure is set to rise substantially. Unless they have affluent parents willing to pay off their debts, graduates are desperate to seek higher paid jobs so that they can start generating a real income.Is the so-called ‘education’ that they get, really worth this debt?
- The academic abilities of many students entering universities is so low that they cannot achieve the academic excellence that universities should be aspiring to. Many universities make offers to students equivalent to 2 Ds or 3 Es at A’ level. The quality of education that such students receive can be good, but most students with A’ levels this low are unlikely to be at the cutting edge of knowledge creation in their later lives. How much intellectual benefit do they really gain from their degrees?
- Going to university is often a lifestyle decision, and many students do not participate sufficiently actively in the pursuit of academic excellence. It is a scandal that students in the UK spend so little time on their academic studies. A report of the Higher Education Policy Institute surveyed 15,000 1st and 2nd year students in 2007 and found that the average time that they spent being taught and in private study was 26 hours a week (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7011121.stm). This is about the same amount of time that they spend in bars on campus! In Portugal, students on average spend 40 hours a week on their academic work. In effect, perhaps half of UK university students are doing what amount to part-time degrees, and yet they expect to get the same grades as those who can devote 40 or 50 hours a week to their studies.
- Grade inflation applies just as much at universities as it does for A’ levels. Business leaders regularly bemoan the declining abilities of graduates. Is this surprising given how little academic work many students do while at university? Most university league tables include the percentage of upper second and first class degrees awarded as one of their key criteria. With such an incentive, is it really surprising that many universities have devised intricate mechanisms to ensure that they award high numbers of such degrees?
None of this is to the benefit of the many keen and enthusiastic students from poor or otherwise marginalised backgrounds who aspire to go to a university to achieve academic excellence, and indeed move knowledge forward. Likewise, there are many outstanding and highly committed students who worthily gain excellent degrees – but my point is that there are far too few of these in our universities today.
Lest I am misunderstood, I should emphasise that academic excellence is something very different from elitism. We must champion excellence through education and training at all costs. Indeed, the demise of higher education in the UK owes much to a misplaced emphasis on reducing elitism rather than championing excellence. Excellence and elitism are fundamentally different concepts.
So, how do we get ourselves out of this mess? My manifesto for the future of UK universities and continuing education contains four key elements:
- Reduce the number of universities by approximately half, with funding for research and teaching coming primarily from the government. Universities are meant to be communities of scholars who undertake research and encourage students to think critically thereby leading to the advancement of knowledge. This reduction in size of the sector will not dramatically reduce research quality, since this is already highly focused, and it will enable those students who attend university to have a much higher quality of learning environment. Civilised societies must have excellent universities not only to promote innovation but also to act as their moral consciences through critical reflection.
- Create a raft of continuing learning institutions to provide excellent training and skills acquisition in fields deemed to be valuable by society. These could, for example, be in fields as diverse as football, IT skills, dance, plumbing, language training, chefs, line repairers, music, welders, and care assistants. Businesses, civil society organisations and government should play key roles in determining both the areas of specialism and the funding. Their key attribute would be that they would encourage people to strive for excellence in their chosen field. Courses would be for up to two years (thereby providing a substantial saving of time and funding on current university three year degrees) and people of all ages would be encouraged to use them to gain the skills required for particular jobs.
- The system would be underpinned by rigorous selection processes to help ensure equality of access based on skills and aptitude, thereby enabling those best able to benefit from different types of post-secondary learning to do so. At the heart of this new system will be a rigorous evidence-based procedure to ensure that appropriate advice and opportunities are given to people as to the type of post-secondary learning that they embark on.
- A redefinition of qualification titles. The awards given by the new continuing learning institutes must also be deemed by society to be as valuable as university ‘degrees’. This will depend greatly on the quality of learning provision, but if they can provide learners with the skills to enable them to gain highly paid jobs, as for example professional footballers or chefs, then their status will be assured. Indeed, it is even possible that those wishing to pursue research careers at universities may well find themselves being paid much less in the future than mechanics and plumbers (http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/news/article.html?in_article_id=429176&in_page_id=2).
These are radical proposals, and will be unpopular in many quarters. However, unless we engage seriously with the crisis facing universities and skills acquisition in the UK, we will continue to muddle along in perpetual mediocrity. We once had a university system of which to be proud. Let us not be beguiled by recent announcements suggesting that ‘British universities dominate the world Top Ten rankings for the first time this year (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/student/article6865260.ece, 8th October 2009). UK higher education is in crisis, and it needs dramatic surgery to make it excellent.