Teaching too many

Talk to anyone who has taught in a non-Oxbridge university and they will tell you that a big proportion of the students are just not suited to the mental disciplines that are core to such study. The universities are being damaged by being used in large part as a baby sitting service.

‘Education, education, education’ was the rallying cry of that most populist of politicians, Tony Blair. ‘Deliver messages in threes and be sure of applause’ he was probably advised (though he might have come up with the ‘education’ phrase himself).

The delivery of that electioneering mantra involved even more young people being encourged to apply for university, and the institutions had to take the influx in order to qualify for their funding. Universities had to set up marketing campaigns to achieve the numbers. Admissions tutors could no longer give sound advice – “go and study for a trade, you’ll be much happier”.

Nearly every course involves the writing of a dissertation and when staff come to mark them they have long established principles they should observe, the most important being academic rigour – testing every contention against methods of proof and cross referencing all quotations with clear distinction as to the source. This being a blog does not follow such a contention and neither does journalism as Libby Purves so eloquently puts it.

When I was a visiting lecturer, finding academic rigour in any of the documents I was marking was impossible. The discipline was absent but understanding of these standards of proof is essential in wider application as it guides the individual to the most reliable data or analysis. It is essential for any form of research and vital when we are tempted to take our information or opinion through a copy/paste trawl through the Internet.

If the nation had demand for places and a growth in university admissions because the applicants had the aptitudes and capacities to benefit, we should do everything possible to accommodate them but the swelling of the ranks has been artificial and without clear purpose other than to take youngsters off the streets and make politicians look good.

The sheer burden of coping with artificially-boosted numbers has lasting effects:

Lecturers have to process too much sub-standard work and shift standards so roughly the same proportions achieve the various degrees. Others say this as well.

Subjects and complete departments have been introduced without any account of the potential job market. There are probably more journalism and media courses running now than the total number of starter vacancies that will be offered in the next two years (if anyone wants to check the figures it would be great).

Original investigative research for the sake of discovery and the expansion of knowledge has had lowered priority in the face of fee-earning projects from the commercial sector and cuts in funding. We have excellent people in the academic field and we rely on their enquiring intellects to give the nation the edge in international economic competition but we distract them from their true potential when they have to cope with the fall-out from the changes wrought by government.

The students, too, have suffered. While they are at university, economic survival means many have to find a job and somehow fit in the lectures, tutorials and coursework , which also impacts their lecturers. Many have live away from home in order to be at university. They become highly stressed as a result.

At the end of their studies they have the legacy of a student loan to pay off some time in the future and a degree that frequently has little relevance to whatever employment they find (do you need a degree in psychology to be a secretary in a building site office or any other subject to serve burgers?).

The radical solution:

Abandon the policy of sending more young people to university.

Deliver more education on-line and test the outcomes for the award of qualifications with mobile centres using several modes of evaluation including oral examinations.

Re-establish academic vigour as the guiding principle (as a side effect maybe the next generation of university-educated politicians might be better placed to make sound judgements).

Match the number of places/courses for vocational education more closely to demand and make them real centres of excellence.

Turn most of the newer universities back into further education colleges serving local communities with the skills for which there are demands and downsize them drastically.

Restore funding to original research.

What are your ideas?

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