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David (now Lord) Willetts: Always worth reading, but seems to regard higher education as operating in a vacuum (Chatham House CC BY 2.0)

He is, however, too intellectually honest to make this an entirely convincing love letter to universities. An alternative account of the massification of elite universities, mainly drawn from this very book, would point out the following. Universities do not add much educational value, especially in the smarter universities, because academics are researchers first and teachers second, if at all. They do not do much for social mobility. Indeed, by making university almost a compulsory middle- and upper-middle-class rite of passage in recent decades, expansion may have been a drag on mobility. They suck up too much state research funding, some of which would be better spent in autonomous research institutes like Germany’s Fraunhofer institutes. And they have cast a shadow of failure over half the population and hastened Michael Young’s meritocratic dystopia.

Moreover, the avuncular Willetts has draped his arm around “his” universities and happily turned a blind eye to other obvious problems, such as dumbing down. Not only has there been a 40 per cent increase in the proportion of students getting a first in the past five years — one consequence of turning students into fee-paying consumers? — but there is now essentially no entry requirement at all in some of the new universities.

And how do we know that all this “world-class research” is in fact world-class? In the one corner of the humanities that I know something about — immigration, race, multiculturalism — much of the academic research is barely disguised political advocacy. Education departments are often very ideological too. Willetts complains rather meekly about being unable to give a speech at Cambridge because of a student protest but seems oblivious to the intellectual orthodoxy that dominates across the humanities.

The real problem with Willetts’s qualified cheer-leading for the current configuration of higher education is that he tends to see it as operating in a vacuum. When reflecting on his own bugbear of early subject specialisation at age 16 he understands how elite universities distort the whole educational pyramid. But he seems blind to the impact rapid university expansion has had on the rest of post-school education, almost wiping out sub-degree technical education and eclipsing higher-level vocational education.

All the prestige and financial incentives point in one direction, from the schools that are now judged on how many people they can send to good universities to the universities’ bottomless funding system backed by the Student Loans Company and the simple UCAS portal giving easy access to a national system.

“In post-19 education we are producing vanishingly small numbers of higher-technician-level qualifications, while massively increasing the output of generalist bachelors’ degrees and low-level vocational qualifications,” as Professor Alison Wolf puts it. In 2016, 332,000 people got a first degree and just 6,000 completed a higher technical HND or HNC. No wonder employers complain about skill shortages and hire people from abroad.

The adult skills budget, covering all non-university post-school education, has been in free-fall. Further education colleges which were once closely connected to local employers now do mainly remedial class-room teaching for 16-18 year olds or multipurpose community provision such as English teaching for immigrants.
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Peter Smith
April 7th, 2018
12:04 PM
All so very true; I left school at 15 (just before my 16ht birthday) and have done what I call a 'self-directed apprenticeship'. I achieved Chartered Engineer status some years ago without a degree, but that might have been impossible if I had not moved to the USA (I lived there for 22 years) where most companies cared little about degrees after a few years of work, and far more about whether you can actually do the job. The problem I see is that it is assumed a degree is required for electrical engineering (a part of what I do). I started as a junior mechanic (Royal Navy) and have taken the opportunities life has afforded me. Perhaps that is not the path for many, but for myself it has been a lot of fun - roads less travelled perhaps. It is certainly time to re-evaluate just what the university system is actually supposed to be doing.

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