neither earning nor learning

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Cards on the table, and contrary to what it actually says on my curriculum vitae, I didn’t go to uni. Due to an admittedly dreadful set of A level results I was consigned, in the early 80s, to the second tier of further education, and I went to a poly. Sheffield City Polytechnic to be precise and it was exactly the right decision as I was fortunate enough to pick a course I thoroughly enjoyed, achieve a half-decent result, graduate without a penny of debt and walk into a job that warranted what I’d just learned. I look back on those days fondly and can honestly say that, to this day, I am a product of those times.

Consequently, I have been a constant and vociferous supporter of further education for all and genuinely believe that, due to increasing teaching standards and the quality of information available to them, subsequent generations have become both smarter and more intelligent. And the stats for once back this up: British universities now award five times as many degrees as they did when I was at poly; the proportion of Firsts has more than quadrupled from 7% in 1994 to 29% this year; at thirteen specific universities more than 90% of students were awarded at least a 2:1 and at spired Oxbridge colleges 99% of their English, history and language undergraduates received either a First or 2:1.

At first glance, our universities are a national success story. They, we are repeatedly told, are world-class, the envy of academia the world over and international student flock to study at them. Scratch below this gilded surface however and there’s a different story to be had: Never before have we had so many well-qualified graduates and never before have their qualifications amounted to so little. Extrapolate this grade ‘drift’ and by 2061 100% of university attendees will all achieve Firsts! During the past thirty-five years, successive governments of all colour and persuasion have changed further education out of all recognition and the British university degree has all but lost its value.

Under the tutelage of her political mentor and education secretary, Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher published the radical 1985 Jarratt Report which detailed that “universities are first and foremost corporate enterprises” and “scholars should not run the university system, business leaders must”. The upshot was clear in that their operation and future success would be determined by market forces.

Sheffield City Polytechnic was reborn as Sheffield Hallam University in 1992 at the behest of PM John Major and to ‘raise expectations’ their funding was made dependent upon the quality of their academic research, not upon the quality of their teaching, as had always been the case. A subtle change that you’d be forgiven for thinking was relatively innocuous and benign, until the penny drops that, previously local teaching institutions where few staff undertook research, now had to publish or perish. The following year saw the release of the University League Tables where the prime drivers are seen to be the quality of said academic research and the publishing of achieved performance ie grades. Both these factors are critical to an institution’s ranking and by implication, its attractiveness to future students.

Fast forward several years and we see the coalition government of 2011 all but eliminate direct funding for university teaching, replacing it with tuition fees in excess of £9000. The circle was complete and government money in the form of student loans now followed those very same students. The fate and future of all our education establishments rested on the decisions made by eighteen year olds, and these decisions were almost entirely based on the university’s position within the league tables. Universities no longer competed on grounds of education but on the grades they awarded. How else to explain the unprecedented rise of the ‘unconditional offer’?

The outcome is a grossly expanded university system that chases student numbers as they determine the ’value’ of the institution, and perhaps the salary of their Chancellor. The ultimate irony is that, with fewer ‘graduate’ positions paying the salary levels that warrant the paying-back of the student loans, we’re wasting money and the current system is actually costing the taxpayer far more in real terms than the system it sought to replace. Have we sold our younger generations a lie wrt the value of a university education and are we in fact wasting their precious, valuable time? The sad truth of our current university system is that, more often than not, it provides neither a platform for learning nor one for earning.