UK Politics

Better Fewer

Mick Hume has some controversial things to say about current further education policy in Britain.

First he thinks there is a link between the policy of attempting to get 50% of young people into university and a high dropout rate from such institutions

It is official policy to get people into university even if they don’t want to go. For Universities UK, the higher education authority, a “key issue now is attracting people with no background of (or current aspirations to) study in HE”. For students who do not even have any aspirations to study, university can have little meaning. They can walk on to a course, where little will be asked of them and they will find it hard to fail. If their time at university is reduced to the equivalent of three empty “gap” years on a soulless campus, it is little wonder that so many take their bums off the overcrowded lecture theatre seats for good. Dropout rates at some new universities now touch 40 per cent.

I’m very much in favour of encouraging bright children from non-academic backgrounds to go to university but I wonder if the rationale behind this aim is best served by scooping half the children in the country into institutions which so many students have rejected by “voting with their feet”.

Hume’s suggestion to the government is that it should stop the pretence that it is able to offer a valid and broadly equivalent tertiary education to anyone who wants it (and many who don’t) and concentrate on the real educational failure in this country.

To criticise the policy of expanding higher education at all costs is to invite the accusation of elitism. But if the Government wants more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university, it could stop fiddling with the system and start providing them with better schools, so that those who are motivated can get there on merit. Our universities should not be expected to help to cover up problems in our schools, by pretending that half of all youngsters have been educated to undergraduate standard.


I don’t agree with everything in Hume’s article but I share his cynicism about current education policy. I can’t see the benefit to students who come from non-academic backgrounds of racking up huge debts to study a subject which employers dismiss as worthless even if the student manages to complete the course. I also remain unconvinced that many of the subjects on offer at those institutions are worthy of study – Madonna studies anyone ?

Hume argues that top-up fees might actually make people think before they sign their next three years away on a golf-course management degree. He has a point but an alternative policy might be to face the truth, which is that it is not neccessary for half the population to hold a degree.

This may seem shocking to those who have taken the Prime Minister’s education, education, education mantra to mean that more degrees are neccessarily better. However the fact remains that most jobs do not really require a degree. Many jobs which graduates are now filling were carried out perfectly competently in the past by people who left school at 16 or 18, the more ambitious of whom took technical qualifications at night school or professional qualifications in their own free time. One example of this would be the managing partner of one of the UK’s largest commercial law firms who, for whatever reasons, didn’t study for a degree. This hasn’t exactly held her or the many others like her back. Check out the obituaries column for further examples.

The present educational policy is debasing the coinage of UK education. One way to tackle the problem would be to face up to the fact that less of us need a degree than we have been told for electoral reasons by successive opportunistic education ministers. The money saved by axeing post-modern studies courses and the like could easily restore grants for a smaller but better educated student population.

For those who think this is elitist – ask yourselves if it is preferable to pretend to non-academic youngsters that the massive debts they are aquiring are justifiable because when they finish their degree they will be fought over by employers.

It’s not me who is guilty of cynicism.