Harry Lambert wrote an article for The New Statesman titled The great university con: how the British degree lost its value. « Never before has Britain had so many qualified graduates. And never before have their qualifications amounted to so little. »

« At a glance, British universities are a national success story. They have increased the number of undergraduate degrees they award fivefold since 1990, while the proportion of Firsts they hand out has quadrupled – from 7 per cent in 1994 to 29 per cent in 2019. For every student who got a First in the early 1990s, nearly 20 do now. Masters’ degrees, meanwhile, are nearly ten times as common as they were. »

« And Oxbridge is leading the charge: 96 to 99 per cent of its English, history and languages students get “good honours”. »

« In the 1970s and 1980s between 8 and 19 per cent of young British adults went on to higher education, whereas 50 per cent now do. »

« According to Professor Fenton of Goldsmiths, “Students come to us now with an entirely different mindset. They want to know what you want to hear in order to get a First.” Students, she says, turn up expecting to find “bite-sized chunks of knowledge that you put in certain boxes. It’s that learnt process of gaming an A* [at A-level]. That’s the complete opposite to what a university education is.” Or rather, was. »

« In 1963, Robbins, a professor at the London School of Economics since 1929, published what would become a totemic report on higher education. A staunch believer in capitalist markets, he criticised John Maynard Keynes and hired Friedrich Hayek. But when it came to universities, he grasped a reality that later reformers misunderstood: that a university education was a public good.  “Excellence is not,” wrote Robbins, “something that can be bought any day in the market.” It was something to be nurtured and guarded. For expansion to serve its purpose, “the standard traditionally attached to the term ‘degree’ in this country will be fully maintained”. »

« At Queen Mary last year, a memo issued by the university business school demanded that lecturers ensure at least 60 per cent of students were given a 2:1 or better in every assessment. This, it made clear, was not “an aspirational target for marks”, but rather a “minimum threshold” to ward off “further investigation”. »

« Good honours are now so common that many graduate employers will not take students without at least a 2:1. Grade inflation begets grade inflation. »

« … the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). To an unsuspecting student, the QAA may sound like a body that checks the standards of its degree. In reality, the QAA “has never been concerned with standards”, says Bahram Bekhradnia of the Higher Education Policy Institute. All it does, Alan Ryan, professor of politics at Oxford, has explained, is “insist on a particular form of bureaucratic packaging”. »

« The coalition all but eliminated direct government funding for university teaching. In turn, it raised tuition fees from £3,225 to £9,000. This meant that government money now “followed the student”. The fate of universities would hang on the decisions of 18-year-olds.  Universities had to give out good grades to satisfy students. »

« “Difficult areas of the syllabus are either omitted in their entirety or simply not examined”  »

« Tuition fees are paid to universities by government, on behalf of students. When a graduate earns over £25,000 in a given year, they pay back some of this “loan”. It is not, however, really a loan “in any sense”, says Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). “You’re not going to have bailiffs coming after you.” But under the government’s accounting rules, calling it a loan meant that tuition payments did not add to the government deficit. Willetts could run up a tab, and the Treasury could act like a tab did not exist. »

« So far, the outstanding cost of university tuition loans has added £105bn – around 5 per cent of GDP – to the UK’s debt. By the 2040s, according to Department for Education forecasts, it will have added £460bn, or nearly 12 per cent of GDP…  With low interest rates, such a mountain of debt is manageable. When rates rise, that will change. »


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