A recent news report suggests that employers prefer graduates from other EU member-states, like Poland, to British graduates. They find that despite the nominal class of the degree, the foreign graduates frequently have a better grasp of the subject than their British counterparts. Employers also comment favourably on the foreign graduates’ work ethic, and even (amazingly) on their superior spelling, grammar and written communication skills.
A comment on a BBC blog-site http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/talking_point/879953.stm as long ago as 2000 suggested that “the rot set in in 1992 when polytechnics were converted into universities”, adding that “the current rash of pseudo-degrees are a joke, and objects of ridicule”. Certainly degrees in “Madonna” and “Golf” should raise eye-brows, while it could be that media studies degrees, although feeding a major industry, are getting to be two-a-penny.
As a Conservative, I have to tread carefully, as the 1992 decision to change the status of polytechnics was made by a Conservative government. And it was made with honourable intentions. For too long in this country, vocational education has been the poor relation of the higher education system. In Germany, the term “Engineer” is an honourable one, and the Engineer may well find himself addressed as “Herr Doktor”. In Britain, not always but too often, the term carries less respect. Yet industry is crying out for engineers — and scientists and mathematicians. And the building trade and other sections of industry are crying out for tradesmen — carpenters and bricklayers who are properly trained, and know what they are doing. The recent disastrous delays on the railway system at Rugby (my local station when I take the train to London) are being blamed not only on bad planning, but on a lack of engineering staff. And if you wake in the middle of the night to find water sluicing down from the tank in the attic and into the spare bedroom, you want a plumber, not a media studies graduate.
If we had thought more carefully in 1992, we might have realised that conflating polys with universities might fail to up-grade the image of the former. It might (and did) down-grade the image of the latter. The error is compounded by this Labour government’s absurd and arbitrary target of 50% of young people going to university. If universities are to maintain rigorous academic standards, the hard fact is that far less than 50% of young people will be suitable for a university education. These young people should by no means be abandoned. But they should be offered education that suits their skills and aspirations, that ensures a career and an income, and that fills the need of our economy for practical skills.
Four suggestions for policy:
1 Improve the schools. Everyone (except the government) knows that our schools are failing our children, and our economy. Here Conservatives are offering constructive policies. We must abandon central planning. We must bring back proper discipline, which means giving head teachers powers of exclusion, and other effective sanctions against bad behaviour. We must devolve much more responsibility for admissions and curricula and teaching methods to the schools — not just to teachers, but to parents and governors. And hand-in-hand with local control, we want parental choice. Nothing forces up standards like the power of the consumer, and the evidence from other countries, especially Scandinavia, proves it.
2 We must not merely accept élitism. We must celebrate it. In academic life, as in sport, there are winners and losers, and we do no favours to our children, or our educational standards, if we pretend otherwise. Universities are élitist or they are nothing. And like schools, our universities must have control over admissions, and courses. Government initiatives which interfere with academic freedom can do nothing but harm. As a Cambridge man, I am horrified by the damage that Labour’s cack-handed attempts at social engineering are doing to our great universities. If they are determined to leave the UK a second-rate country, they are going about it the right way.
3 We must promote those subjects that benefit our economy. Of course it would be wrong, and a gross infringement of academic freedom, to draft youngsters into courses they don’t want to do. But to the extent that the state subsidises higher education, I cannot see why we should not subsidise those courses — engineering, maths, science — which the country needs most. We should say to youngsters “Yes. Study golf course management or beauty therapy if you want. But don’t expect to get the same subsidised fee levels as if you study something more difficult, but more useful”.
4 Finally, let’s bring back the polys. Let’s promote the esteem in which vocational education is held by doing it very well, and making students proud of their skills. Not by pretending that a vocational course is the same as an academic degree. It’s not.
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