Issue 192: 2019 03 07: The Purpose of University

07 March 2019

The Purpose of University.

3 D’s for a loan?

By Lynda Goetz

The recent front page ‘news’ in the Sunday Telegraph – that the Government may seek to block loans if students fail to get a minimum of 3 D’s at ‘A’ level – is actually hardly news.  It was mooted at the end of last year that this was being considered by Philip Augar’s inquiry into post-18 education, set up by the Prime Minister, and it provoked then, as now, angry responses from the higher education establishment, who dubbed it, amongst other things, ‘elitist’.  Forgive my choking, but wasn’t that always what higher education was?  Okay, okay, I do understand that these days, that is not the point, but is this perhaps where we have gone wrong?

University Education was, in its original guise, a completely elitist concept.  Not elitist in monetary terms, you understand, although this, it has to be said, did always play a part, but in terms of intellectual or academic achievement.  You had to be of a sufficient standard to gain admittance.  Not everybody could, or even wanted to.  Similar entry requirements applied and still apply to such things as the Olympics or Wimbledon or joining Manchester City football team.  You cannot participate unless you are chosen and reach the required standard.  Why is this still acceptable in the world of sport or music, for example, but not in the world of academia?

The answer, of course, is that it is still acceptable in the world of academia, just not in the world of Higher Education (or HE as it is now commonly referred to).  Ever since the universities were turned into competing businesses and Vice-Chancellors earn more than the Prime Minister, the point has been, for many universities at least, ‘bums on seats’, as any honest admissions tutor/officer would have to admit if pushed.  Ever since Tony Blair decided that 50% of school leavers should go to university, the idea of elitism in higher education has been, if not on the wane, certainly under attack.  Once universities were allowed to admit as many undergraduates as they could attract (announced December 2013) and the old controls on numbers which used to be in place were removed, the ‘liberalisation’ of English higher education had taken another step forward.  In its report on the situation, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) concluded that although the policy could ‘transform lives, improve social mobility and raise economic performance’, the policy had been raised ‘without much thought… to a number of tricky questions’.

So, back to 2019 and proposed recommendations to refuse loans to students unable to attain even the lowest ‘A’ level grades and to reduce the fee cap from £9,000 to £7,500.  According to the Sunday Telegraph article, “University leaders are fiercely opposed to the plans, on the basis they could significantly reduce student numbers, and along with them, the income of each institution”.  A Whitehall source is reported as saying: “There is a question about whether we would be accused of stigmatising a group of people and saying that university is only for the elite or academically gifted… But it isn’t clear that enough is being done at the moment to stop individuals taking courses without much value to them. In some cases a vocational course could put people on a better path to earning a good salary.”

This, then, is really the issue.  Is the reason for going to university to earn a good salary, ‘to have fun’ or to acquire knowledge and hone skills in a specific field, maybe with a view to further study and a life in academia or, quite possibly, to applying those skills in an entirely unrelated field in the workplace? Should we be sending people to university to study academic subjects which quite possibly don’t interest them or should we be ensuring that school leavers enrol on courses not necessarily at universities, but at Further Education (FE) establishments, which are more likely to guarantee a job and enable them to repay mounting student loans?

As Celia Walden says in her article in Tuesday’s Telegraph; ‘Sticking a question mark at the end of a contentious statement has long been a journalistic ruse’.  Perhaps this is because we are clever enough to identify the problems, but not quite clever enough to provide the answers (or perhaps that we do not wish in these days of social media to be virtually lynched for those answers).  The answers in this instance are, as in so many cases, not easy.  A changing world leads to changing attitudes, changing structures and changing solutions.  Getting into Oxbridge or one of the Russell Group of universities is still, as it has always been, a competitive challenge.  Private schools still get a relatively higher number of their pupils into the top institutions, which is why Michael Gove admitted recently that he would like to get rid of them altogether, on the basis that it creates a ‘fundamental inequality in society’.  Of course, but then without going back to Marxism how do you actually get rid of those ‘fundamental inequalities? How would it be right to allow people to spend the money they had made on property, private yachts, super cars or luxury hotels, but not on private education for their children?  What, basically is wrong with excellence?  (More question marks!)

Nick Hillman in a blog on the HEPI website posits the view that such a ban on loans may not be deliverable, which may be true.  However, the question remains as to whether it is desirable as a way of deterring school leavers from taking up places on ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses of no value, either academically or in the long-term hunt for a job.  The Guardian, which reported on this matter back in January, long before The Telegraph, in an article by Anna Fazackerley quoted data from UCAS showing that 8,000 18 year-olds were accepted to study with less than 3Ds.  According to one Vice–Chancellor, these students ‘have something to prove’ and ‘many… go on to do extremely well at university’.

At this point one is venturing into different territory altogether – whether ‘A’ levels are a good assessment tool at all (which may account for the massive increase in unconditional offers much discussed of late).  According to another blog on the HEPI website this is questionable, but this is not really the issue.  ‘A’ levels are the exams taken by a vast majority of entrants to university in this country.  The International Baccalaureate (IB) may well be a more consistently graded exam, but it is not generally the exam taken by UK students.  It is, however, as HEPI points out, one of the various alternative entry qualifying exams and one of the reasons that using 3Ds as the cut-off point for loans may well be problematic.

At the end of the day, irrespective of the entry requirements, the removal of controls on numbers back in 2013 was a populist move which has radically altered the nature of many universities.  What the government and the universities need to agree on is the purpose of Higher Education.  If it is, as appears increasingly to be the case, to be available to the many not the few and its main purpose is to feed the jobs market, then removing the availability of loans based simply on an apparently unreliably graded exam system does not seem to be a fair way forward.  Perhaps the universities need to be persuaded to let the redundancy axe, which they claim will fall if the cap is lowered, to descend on those lecturers running the Micky Mouse courses which are not offering value.  Students who have not attained 3 D’s will then perhaps turn to FE establishments which offer more valuable and useful courses which set them up for reasonable jobs (which may even mean they are able to pay off their ballooning student loans rather than leaving the taxpayer to pick up the tab).


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