Robert Leitch: After more than a decade of being dumbed down under Labour, the Higher Education system should be re-invented in a flexible and rigorous way
For many young people these fleeting summer weeks will be a time of contrasting emotions. Initially, relief will sweep the land for the many thousands of students who will be unwinding after the anxiety and stress of the past few exam-filled months. Despite this, any celebratory tendencies are likely to be rather short lived. Not only are results about to drop through letterboxes but the harsh reality of searching for employment is also likely to kick in. The game has changed for our new graduates - the greatest challenge now is not merely getting through university but successfully moving on from it.
The truth is that our higher education system is in a desperate state. Frankly, it is failing to make the grade. After all, we now have greater numbers of graduates from an ever-wider range of often bizarre courses fighting it out for a diminishing number of so-called graduate jobs. Not only this but there still exists an expectation, amongst students at least, that graduates are entitled to a well paid, high entry-level position post-university. Add to this rather poisonous mix the well known funding problems and continuous backlog of course applications and you begin to appreciate that higher education increasingly resembles a complete minefield.
Key to any review of the situation will involve finally facing up to the reality that university standards have slipped. In the name of equality we have lowered the overall quality of graduates whilst also encouraging individuals to accept university places without proper consideration or thought. An irresponsible, shallow ‘bums on seats’ mentality has been incorporated by secondary schools and universities with a devastating impact on students and the wider system.
The claim that standards have slipped is supported by the countless numbers of business leaders who are beginning to berate the ability of recent intakes. Indeed, the Association of Graduate Recruiters is urging the new Government to take action to correct the “devaluation” of degrees in recent years. Further evidence is provided by the Forum of Private Business (FPB) which carried out a national survey of more than 4,000 firms. The results of this survey revealed that over half of employers rated graduate recruits as mediocre and lacking in basic literacy and numeracy skills.
What is now required is a fundamental shift in mentality. Going to university for the ‘experience’ should never be the primary justification for choosing such a path, particularly when the average debt facing a student upon leaving university now stands at just under £30,000.
I am afraid that the so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees are not helping the situation either. This September, for example, I could enrol on a three year surf science course or, failing this, even undertake a parapsychology degree! University should, of course, be a valid aspiration for all but not merely a thoughtless continuation from school. Longer term thinking is required with more responsible schooling advice provided and a more ambitious attitude amongst our young people encouraged.
Part of any reform should be the championing of flexible and non-university pathways. University at the age of eighteen is simply not right for every individual. We need to start respecting and extolling career entry positions, young entrepreneurs, vocational work/study qualifications, internal work place development and flexible, long-term degrees. On this last point I must confess to having a vested interest. Concerned about some of the issues discussed above I decided to study for a degree via the London School of Economics’ external, distance learning programme. It has been a testing but thoroughly rewarding choice. Regardless of the pathway chosen, however, we ultimately require a better balance and our unhealthy fixation with full-time study for school leavers must be swept away.
The Left's equality driven, dumbing down approach to higher education has simply misguided and confused many of our young people whilst imposing unnecessary barriers on others. We must now re-invent our flagging higher education system and in doing so let us restore the virtues of freedom and choice over any self-deluding equality agenda. Let us celebrate limitless opportunity and create a society of aspiration where anyone from anywhere can become anything through hard work, ambition and determination, regardless of whether certain letters follow their surname.
Labour have utterly failed on education and, as in other areas, the legacy we have inherited is appalling. If we want to see Britain's higher education become a world leader once again, we must raise standards in our universities, encourage wider and more responsible decision making amongst our young people and dismiss the current attitude in society that only that only those with a degree certificate are capable of reaching the very top. Put quite simply, such an assumption could not be further from the truth.