An article in yesterday’s Sunday Times argued convincingly that a university degree was no longer the route to secure employment that it has previously been, and indeed is still reputed to be. When asked in a poll by ICM for Santander, only 20% of employers said that they would be more likely to consider a recent graduate for a job rather than a school leaver with 3 years’ experience. This ties in with the research conducted by the 1994 group of leading universities earlier this year; although they sought gamely to show that a university degree was still worth the effort, the fact that stood out was that a full 3 years after graduating, 1 in 5 university leavers still does not have a graduate-level job.
Why on earth is this the case? We have some world-class universities in the UK, and a degree from a UK university should be the route to recognition and career success. The fact that this is increasingly not the case suggests that something has gone very badly awry with the system. Moreover, outstanding candidates with excellent grades, destined for further academic study, should be able to find a place at university, and not be left in the margins. Where has it all gone wrong?
The core, of the problem, of course, is our under-investment as a nation in a wide range of training and employment opportunities to suit all 18 year olds, which has been disguised by an apparently noble desire to raise aspirations of our teenagers. The academic route – which of course starts with GCSE and A Level – has steadily been built up over the past few decades to be seen as the only route to social mobility, and has become the focus for school leavers, to the exclusion of other opportunities; conveniently so, as there are few other opportunities. Where are the apprenticeships and training courses? And why – although we know that professions and trades are essential to our economy – are we not investing in them?
This notion that value lies only in a university education has been promoted by generations of politicians, and Michael Gove declared last year that he will not abandon Labour’s target of 50% of school leavers going to university. This would be admirable if schools were preparing students to be high level academic thinkers – the engineers and scientists that the country needs – but in practice, as the number of ‘soft’ subjects at A Level has grown, so too has the range and number of ‘soft’ subjects at university, to accommodate the needs of the school leavers themselves, who have nowhere else to turn if they wish to develop themselves professionally.
The existence in Clearing last Thursday of university degrees in ‘Watersports’, most of which have now been allocated to aspiring students, says it all. Universities have been dumbing down, rather than schools sharpening up, or the country broadening out its expectations of what we want from our young people. Where, now, is a plumber when you need one? And are we really doing all our young people a favour by insisting that the only route to success is via a course at university?
Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial deserve their positions at the top of university world league tables, and many other universities come close. Many do not. As school leavers are shoehorned into universities, an inevitable consequence is that resources are spread more thinly, and we are beginning to see now that places are simply not available for our best students, who should be taking their academic study to the next level. This must, in part at least, be due to a diversion away from strong academic subjects.
We have got the balance wrong; universities are losing their way. Let’s use the debate on tuition fees to work out the real value of a university course and help set it right.
PS The Sunday Times article mentions that 5 St Mary’s Calne girls have been left without places as a result of the rush for university this year. These girls will be just fine; one or two of them will in fact most probably gain their first choice places once their papers have been re-graded, and for the others, we are working with them to ensure that they do not sell themselves short by taking just any course at just any university. If this means taking a gap year – in which they can build up valuable work and life experience anyway – then this is what they will do. The time and effort that we spend making certain that our leavers find the best direction for them as individuals is a model from which universities might learn.