Thinking the Unthinkable: Is Elitism the Answer to the University Funding Crisis?

Posted on January 14, 2011

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Bishop Wordsworth's School in Salisbury topped the league in terms of students receiving the English Baccalaureate, with 98% of pupils achieving the standard

For the first time, annual school league tables have measured the number of pupils achieving five GCSEs at grades A*-C in ‘traditional’ subjects comprising the new English Baccalaureate qualification. The result has been that recent increases in academic achievement have been exposed as a sham, as it is revealed that only 15.6% of pupils have achieved this standard (tragically, this figure falls to below 4% for pupils in receipt of free school meals).

Last week, former Education Secretary Estelle Morris called for GCSEs to be abolished and replaced by national testing at the age of 14. Thereafter, she suggested, pupils could choose between vocational and academic pathways. Yet, she asserted, such tests should not be used to select by ability: ‘If you get five Fs you should still be able to do an academic pathway if that’s what you want,’ she opined. The fact that the former Secretary for Education says ‘to do’ a pathway rather than ‘to choose’ or ‘to take’ is perhaps in itself a graphic example of declining standards, but I digress . . .

In a private system, of course, no sane individual in their right mind would agree to pay for the further academic education of someone achieving five F grades. So why is it a good idea for thousands of taxpayers to be funding thousands of young people with low grades? The reason for such outlandish claims perhaps lies in a prior ideological commitment.

This same bizarre ideology has become so embedded in the thinking of the British establishment that the suggestion that it is not a good idea for so many young people to attend university has become unthinkable. The government is busying itself slashing higher education budgets without stopping to ask some simple questions. In the 1960s, about 5% of young people went on to university. This proportion has now soared to 45%. Has this widening of participation increased the quality of university education, and of Britain’s graduates? Has it succeeded in its aim of extending to a greater number the benefits of higher education, or has it simply destroyed, for all concerned, the point of going to university?

That the answer to the first question is a resounding ‘no’ is an assertion to which the new league tables only add further weight. We have eagerly packed university lecture halls with people of every shade of ability and inability, yet, we have seen a decline in academic standards which has arguably cascaded down through the various levels of the education system, and is now suffocating our schools. This can only continue in a vicious circle as universities necessarily keep lowering their entry requirements in order to embrace an ever-increasing proportion of a population which, as a whole, attains ever-lower educational standards.

The answer to the second question must be more nuanced, but there is strong evidence to suggest that university students are being let down miserably. As more youngsters go to university at a rising cost to themselves, the value of a degree – both intellectually and economically – has plummeted. When the first set of ‘top-up fees’ were introduced in 2003, the government claimed that the graduate premium (the average additional lifetime earnings of a graduate compared to a non-graduate, after the costs of studying have been deducted) stood at around £400,000. Only six years later, Lord Browne claims that this figure is now ‘comfortably over’ £100,000. Private studies suggest that in some cases the figure is even lower. For instance, a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2007 placed the value of the graduate premium for an arts degree at just over £34,000 – less than £1,000 per year for the duration of an average graduate’s working life.

Do supermarket managers need to have a degree?

It is time to abandon the egalitarian ideology behind which lurks a form of middle-class snobbery that regards those who have not been to university as inferior. It is simply not necessary for most people to attend university, and many jobs which currently require a university education could be done just as well by non-graduates. Is it necessary to spend three years at university in order to re-train for two years on the graduate supermarket management scheme at the local store? No. Has the quality of supermarket managers risen now that many of them have attended university? Probably not. On a wider scale, we risk creating an underclass as fewer jobs are available to those not attending university, and almost all possibility of upward social mobility is denied to those without formal qualifications. Unfortunately, the days when a hard-working lad from a poor family could join an organisation and work his way up the ladder are fading fast. An iron ceiling may soon confront those who, despite possessing intelligence and industry, lack qualifications. So much for ‘equality of opportunity’. Returning to a system in which only a small ‘elite’ attends university would benefit everyone. Graduates would receive a superior education at a lower cost, and universities would have no need to make swingeing cuts to their budgets. Equally as important, more opportunities would be available for industrious school leavers who prefer not to continue in formal education. For the sake of the next generation, it is about time we ‘thought the unthinkable’ and said openly that, whatever the benefits of higher education, not everyone needs to go to university, and there is certainly no shame in not having been.

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Posted in: Education