A recent report in the Sunday Times noted that according to UCAS figures only “49.8% of the 425,000 British students accepted at universities across the UK for full-time degrees starting last autumn had taken A-levels, down from nearly 70% in 1999”. This is a remarkable figure, and reinforces my views abut the dumbing down of UK higher education that has taken place over the last decade.
To be sure, there are many reasons why A levels are no longer seen as the gold standard exam used for university entrance, but as the Sunday Times report goes on to argue, there are huge implications of this change. Certainly, universities are now taking students from much more diverse backgrounds, and with different qualifications, which is all to the good – providing of course that these students have the intellectual capacity to cope with the rigorous demands of a quality higher education system.
One of the things that really concerns me about this, though, is that as the Sunday Times notes many schools are “pushing academically bright pupils towards vocational exams to improve league table positions. The result is the students have almost no chance of gaining entry to academic courses at top universities, shutting them out of highly paid jobs”. The article goes on to quote Anna Fazackerley, head of education at the Policy Exchange think tank, who claimed that “Vocational courses can be hugely worthwhile… However, many children from less wealthy backgrounds are pushed into less academic courses simply because their school has low aspirations for them and one eye firmly on league tables.”
This is worrying on two grounds: first, that such students appear to be being excluded from the best universities (however defined) because of decisions made by school teachers so as to ensure their success in the league tables; second, that the argument helps to perpetuate the myth that universities are only about creating graduates who will get high paid jobs. We must never forget that universities should be about so much more than just enabling people to get better paid jobs!
Over the last 20 years, governments and those working in the higher education sector have combined to create a system that is fundamentally flawed, and fails to provide the intellectual and scholarly leadership that we so desperately need in this country. Since 1992, when the former polytechnics and universities were merged, attempts have continued to create a unified higher education system – driven largely by the flawed belief that we need half of our young people to go to ‘university’. We need to recognise that these have failed. We are increasingly creating a system that delivers neither on academic excellence, nor on giving people the high level vocational qualifications that they want or need.
I wish to retain the idea of a “university” as a community of scholars and learners, all of whom are committed to the advancement of knowledge for the good of society. Universities should not simply be about providing people with technical skills that certain people deem to be useful. In the UK, we are indeed in need of people with an outstanding technical education; students doing dumbed down degrees at so-called ‘univeristies’, are not gaining the skills that either they, or our economy, require. We also need outstanding scholars and scientists who are able to push forward the boundaries of knowledge; sadly, our present so-called ‘university’ system is likewise failing to deliver the excellence that it might be capable of – and it is expected to do so with increasingly severe funding cuts!