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It is vital we invest in the future of university education in the UK. We must invest in improving diversity of courses and students, invest in improving standards and improving teaching, we must invest in giving more than an education but giving students skills for work and life. But endlessly targeting "higher numbers" of graduates is pointless and drives down the quality of degrees. We must make it clear what we are supporting here.

Please do not let us get into a bidding war with the socialists. Why on earth do we want to increase the number of people going to universities? The standard of education being provided at all levels seems to be declining inexorably. More does not necessarily mean better - as the ever-rising pass-rate at A level makes very clear.
We do not need more university places. What we need is better teaching to more rigourous standards. Most of all we must stop the social engineering which gives added weight to applicants who, for example, come from families where the parents did not attend university. Anything less relevant to the process of selection would be very hard to find.

Instead of making polytechnics into universities, the reverse should have happened. I remain unconvinced that we need more places at university, but we do need higher standards at university and school. May I suggest if we want to kick start social mobility, the grammar school model might be pursued.

David Graves-Moore is absolutely right. Couldn`t have put it better. We do not want more graduates who often find their qualifications do not help them in their careers, after running up large debts.

Return to apprenticeships in engineering etc, would be a much better idea: and better basic education in the three Rs.

We might write-off tuition top-up fess on satisfactory completion of some courses - the sciences, medicine, architecture, engineering and geology for example.

If a person wants to study History of Art, Media Studies or Medieval English then let them pay for the privilege.

That way the nation may profit from the taxpayer's investment by producing a crop of graduates who can actually do something useful and employable.

Exactly right, Victor.

If the increase in university numbers means an increase in those doing Sociology, Ethnic & Gender Studies and similar whatnots, there will be ZERO benefit to the uk economy and huge costs.

Victor has a fantastic idea, if we make more "required" courses fee free (I'm reliably informed that it has already been done with nursing and physcology), then more people would want to do them, and would ensure our economic future.

Plus, if economics is one, Ulster Tory can afford a gap year...

Bill is correct - Grammar schools are the way forward! Coupled with more competitive higher quality universities, we are better placed to compete with Chindia.

And biodun also makes a good point - some University courses are easy to get into. I have been told that with my results at AS Level, I have enough UCAS points already for alot of courses at old polytechnics. Surely these type of courses should be scrapped/reduced in numbers and replaced by Apprenticeship schemes?

David Willets is mad. I agree with all the comments above. We do need proper University degrees and not the many mickey mouse degrees that are on offer - which divert funding to science and technology.

Besides some of the oddball degree courses offered by the newer universities are immigration rackets.

I agree with the sentiments of the posters above. Much much more important thasn opening new Universities is restoring the many courses which have been abandoned by our existing Universities. Many of these are scientific or engineering based courses which are vital to Britain's economic health.
I was a big admirer of Willets until his abject handling of the Grammar Schools fiasco, I really hope he doesn't let the party down again with this idea.

University expansion is fine, so long as the distinction between academic and vocational higher education is made VERY clear.

I'm not aware of any evidence that the proportion of people going to university has any effect on national wealth. In fact the evidence is that there is no link at all.

Universities are essentially just a filter - sorting out the cleverest people for the benefit of employers. If everyone has degree then they fail even to do this and their usefulness is gone.

I agree with the sentiment that students of "useful" subjects might be preferred over those who study less vocational / economically useful subjects. However it does not necessarily follow that better or more jobs will be available for those who study such "useful" subjects. That said, even if one discounts the issue of job propspects, I do think genrerally society / the economy would benefit from more science/engineering/quantitative students.

Bishop Hill

You kind of beat me to it. A level grades used to be a good predictor of further examination success. I would also note FWIW that many graduates find switching from academic exams to professional ones a shock.

I have to say that I find this announcement disappointing. Whilst I support the aspiration that more and more young people we must get to grip with the lack of basic kills amongst the bottom 20% and then the lack of skilled tradesmen.

I think it is a point well made by several contributors that we must not get into some sort of bidding war with the reds and that we must focus money on technical subject.

To this end we should renew our pledge to scrap fees at least for these subjects. Doctors, engineers, etc are the people who will drive the UK economy forward not more social scientists.

To fund this will costs money which will either have to be found from central Government, from the private sector, or from cuts in other areas.

I am still, however a great exponent of the fact that those students who go on into well paid jobs paid back the costs of their education through the extra tax they pay over the course of their working life. To charge them doubly appears to me be a stealth tax on students and when people say that it is right that Uni students pay, I don’t hear anyone arguing that college students should pay.

I am against students going to University for the sake of it. There are certain professions where University education is essential, and I will always support those, but a higher general standard of education is more important, with Technical Colleges brought back to teach Tades.
Not everybody is suitable for a University education, and often Graduates leave without a clue as to what they want to do in life, and expect us all to give them a living.
50 years ago Unilever had a policy that all managerial positions were only open to Graduates. I worked for them in Research and Developement and to get a position in that department we all needed a minimum qualification of City & Guilds in that trade. Unilever realised this was not the right way forward, and changed their policy so that the technicians had a chance to progress into management.

Oh dear! This just provides further confirmation that Blue Labour is as bad as New Labour.

The result would be yet more heavily indebted young people with worthless degrees having been instructed by bogus professors in imaginary academic disciplines.

How about something really radical such as withdrawing all government funding from all university degree courses other than those concerned with, mathematics, science, engineering and medicine?

The money saved could be redirected to part time adult learning and sponsored apprenticeships.

I agree with David Graves-Moore; let's stop this and axe Labour's 50% universities target. The one thing we would like, Mr Willetts, is GRAMMAR SCHOOLS!

I agree with the comments above - we should be pruning the number of universities and ensuring that engineering, science, medical and mathematics Departments in the remaining establishments are properly funded.

The place for learning practical skills is Technical College, and the rest is silly faff to keep young people off the Unemployed list.

Willets should be gracefully 'retired'.

I thought he was supposed to be intelligent? Does he honestly think that the economy benefits from an increase in people studying mickey mouse subjects? such degrees are probably created for those who go into non-jobs.

Perhaps Mr Willetts would be so kind as to write an article for ConHome justifying this insane idea?

Has David Willetts gone politically mad to suggest expanding the universities?

Has he thought about the cost?

This would be huge, at a time when we face years of hardship because we are failing to be competitive with the newly emerging industrial giants (India and China for a start).

The previous increase in university expansion has led to loads of people dropping out from courses (at enormous cost to the country), people taking easy options and increases in courses which could be abolished with no loss to the country (Gender and Ethnic Studies, Sociology and many more).

David Willetts got it wrong over Grammar Schools. He should look deeper into how our taxes are wasted in universities before making more silly suggestions!

Is there some way Mr. Willets can be informed of the views being expresed here?

Everyone in my class at school was fed-up with learning by the time they reached sixth form. I would like to see people taking a year out at 16, like they do in the ROI, and return to school invigorated and eager to learn now that they have seen the alternative.

Being cynical might I suggest this support is to keep the youth unemployment figures down?

Cameron's reversal of the good policy to scrap tuition fees and join the bandwagon so that Media Studies graduates will soon be unable even to get a McJob due to the number of applicants with a BSc (Hons) in Burger Flipping was a mistake.

However, when such a large proportion of young people are currently at University and the path has already been opened up to be part of the aspirations of another generation I imagine that it would be unpopular amongst the student vote to be portrayed as wanting to reduce numbers. There are a fair number of seats where students can have a big impact.

Edward Huxley[email protected] asked:

"Is there some way Mr. Willets can be informed of the views being expressed here?"

You can, if you wish, contact the gentleman though his website here:

http://www.davidwilletts.co.uk/

There is no point in me doing so since, as I am openly a UKIP member, I would of course be dismissed as a "fruitcake" or worse. (actually I care more about my country than my party but no matter).

I suggest that one of you True Tories might contact him and invite him to defend his ideas here.

How much more evidence do you people need? The senior Tories are a set of clueless fabians. The views of the worthless pond-life who read the guardian are much more important to them than what we know to be right for the country. Just look at David Willets; you can see it on his silly little face, a conservative thought has never cross his supposedly 'brainy' mind.

ConservativeHome is partly responsible for this. By being to uncritical of the Cameron cabinet they are now grinding our faces in the mud. Many of you are too dazzeld by election victory to realise that if the conservatives are not prepared to seriously upset guardian readers, they will ruin the country just as surely as Labour have.

I agree with most of the above comments.
I have never yet heard Mr Willetts say anything that is:

A. Conservative

B. Practical, or

C. Worth the time I spent considering it

Please will someone put this mad wonk out to pasture and put a conservative in his place?

I seldom post twice on one thread here but I should say that I do endorse grammar schools wholeheartedly having been a boy from a very deprived background who received a sound grammar school education.

There is no benefit in expanding the number of university places. It has been pointed out that if everyone has a degree then nobody has one in reality. They should not be issued like birth certificates.

It is quite possible that only about 20% of the populace have the capability to take a degree in a "proper" subject. If so, that means that already about 50% of all entrants are unsuited. That also accounts for the enormous drop-out rate.

Conversely, we are losing the ability to do anything of real use. We are unable to complete any building project on time or nearly on budget, we import doctors and nurses trained in poor countries, our plumbers are lazy or else Polish, our cars are designed abroad [and made abroad] - need I go on?


A hamburger chain and a small, failing airline are authorised to give out "degree equivalents".

The bloke who should be making fine furniture is working in council clerical job with his degree course in French and History. The number of graduates in call centres has decreased, of course, as even those jobs are exported. Even our "recycling" is exported to China and Indonesia.

Our politicians are all lawyers or trade unionists or PPE graduates. We are becoming unfit for the purpose of being a modern state.

Answer that Mr. Willetts.

Increased student numbers is absolutely the last thing we need. We need better funding for the students we do have; in particular better funding for the expensive stuff that actually benefits the UK, like medical training and engineering.

Shovelling more and more low aptitude students into frivolous courses is a terrible idea.

Victor:
"We might write-off tuition top-up fess on satisfactory completion of some courses - the sciences, medicine, architecture, engineering and geology for example."

Medicine, engineering and possibly some of the hard sciences are the only ones I'd suggest this for. Certainly not architecture! Geology is good for the oil industry, but doesn't need extra funding.

Disclaimer: I teach Law, which is cheap & has good career prospects, so we get tons of students.

Angelo Basu:
"However, when such a large proportion of young people are currently at University and the path has already been opened up to be part of the aspirations of another generation I imagine that it would be unpopular amongst the student vote to be portrayed as wanting to reduce numbers. There are a fair number of seats where students can have a big impact."

The big complaints most students at my University have is that there are TOO MANY STUDENTS. It's the result of HEFCE funding targets. The students would greatly benefit from there being fewer students and a better staff-student ratio.

As they say it's more 'Blue Labour'

Victor:
"It is quite possible that only about 20% of the populace have the capability to take a degree in a "proper" subject."

From my experience seeing the expansion of higher education since 1991, I'd say around 30-33% have the capability to do a higher education degree. The expansion from ca 18% to ca 30% under Major didn't bring huge problems. When they went beyond that it went bad.

I am at a loss to understand why this commitment from David Willetts is so scorned.

Firstly, we have an expanding population and therefore we need more university places just to stand still.

Secondly, the nature of UK employment is unstoppably shifting towards knowledge-based industries. It has been this way since we left our caves and it should be blindingly obvious that it’s the way things will continue to go. Individually and collectively the best investment we can make is in education and, contrary the ill-informed comments here, tertiary education is not a waste (note table T_A1.7).

Thirdly, if not for the formal qualifications we should be encouraging people into tertiary education for the rich experience it provides in finding independence, learning new cultures and broadening horizons.

Conservatives should understand competition better than any other party. We should understand that our hands are no longer competitive globally, but we can make money with our minds. Instead of sliding down the league tables of university education, it is imperative that we retain our competitive edge. We need the most educated workforce that we can possibly achieve.

It would be interesting to know the general view is as to what purpose a university education is intended to serve. There is a view, which I support, that although the immediate cost might seem high, the most appropriate role of higher education is to allow those taking part in it the chance to learn how to think. It is all part of the maturing process and although the atmosphere is perhaps artificial (a large group of people in the same age group, thrown together in an academic society) the chance to stretch their minds and set the world to rights is fundamentally a sound idea.
Too many of those who drop out have gone to their university straight from school and after another year of academic work, perhaps hoping to use their course for vocational purposes, find they have had enough. The `gap year` should be taken up by as many as possible so that they return to higher education with a fresh mind.
Vocational courses post-university are valuable for those who, while they are there, discover a talent for something that was not apparent on leaving school.
There are of course many for whom a university education is unsuitable and these young (and sometimes not-so-young) people will benefit from a more directed vocational training course.
The high personal cost, raised by the spectre of fees now being charged (and dreamed up by those who were not in their day required to pay) is a deterrent to many who would benefit. If we think we need to encourage those who should train as engineers, scientists, mathematicians and the like by remitting their fees as suggested in earlier posts, this should be done.
On balance however, let us not prevent those who wish to from undertaking higher education. It will be to the long term benefit of the country if it encourages the broadening of minds and development of humanity in our people.

"Secondly, the nature of UK employment is unstoppably shifting towards knowledge-based industries"

But the trouble is that our economy has not been going that way unless you count financial services as “knowledge based”(ha, ha!). Rather we have generally moved in the direction of a low skilled, low paid service economy fuelled by mass immigration.

Since the 1960s we have been repeatedly been told by our political leaders that we require more university places to upgrade our knowledge and scientific skills in this competitive world. Who could disagree?

Unfortunately, if you then examine the additional university degree courses that have actually been provided, particularly since 1997, these have largely involved sociology, media studies, theology (!!), law, gender studies, golf course management and a host of other pseudo subjects. The result has been that the pool of graduates in mathematics, science and engineering has actually shrunk over the decades.

However, one cheer for New Labour. They did expand the number of medical schools in this country.

Good to know that the UK taxpayer will have even more opportunities to fund the higher education of people from other EU states.

Mark the reasons it is scorned are many.
Many graduates find themselves forced to take employment in traditionally no graduate jobs where there skills are not needed.
Much of our youth are leaving University with very substantial debts which are proving to be extremely difficult to pay off.
Many of the courses offered by (particularly new) Universities are considered of little or no worth by many employers whilst vital departments are closing.
The quality of teaching and the value degree varies enormously. Shouldn't we look at fixing some of the failing institutions before opening new ones?

Mark Fulford:
"Conservatives should understand competition better than any other party. We should understand that our hands are no longer competitive globally, but we can make money with our minds. Instead of sliding down the league tables of university education, it is imperative that we retain our competitive edge. We need the most educated workforce that we can possibly achieve."

It's incredibly stupid to be sending people to University when they can't read, write or spell. Look to getting secondary education right.

Malcolm, spot on. Not to mention that with the world financial system in meltdown, where is the money coming from?

David:
"Good to know that the UK taxpayer will have even more opportunities to fund the higher education of people from other EU states.
"

Good point - a higher education policy in Britain's interests would be contrary to EU law. We need to leave the EU.

David at Home. I`m also a fruitcake and closet racist, so no use my writing to Mr. Willets either.

The plan seems to be to match, or exceed, all the government`s socialism. Don`t be surprised if Blue Labour also promises free computers for poorer children; free nursery school places and free theatre tickets for the under twenty-sixes.

Incidentally, I was a Conservative before Mr. Cameron and Mr. Willets were born. Still am one, just waiting for sanity to break out. Then I`ll rejoin.

"I teach Law, which is cheap & has good career prospects, so we get tons of students."

I remember reading that Law was the cheapest subject to teach and that this had fuelled massive rises in the number of places. Has it really got good career prospects for those studying other than at the pre-1992 Universities and a handful of the traditionally strong Polys (eg Nottingham Trent)? There's only so many training contracts and pupillages around (and these were outnumbered by qualified law graduates even 20 years ago) - I'd have thought there was little or no prospect of a related career for the majority of those studying on newer courses at newer establishments. It isn't as if the course is intrinsically THAT interesting (speaking as a lawyer myself).

Ruth said "Everyone in my class at school was fed-up with learning by the time they reached sixth form. I would like to see people taking a year out at 16, like they do in the ROI, and return to school invigorated and eager to learn now that they have seen the alternative."

I disagree profoundly, many only start waking up to the joy of learning when they arrive in sixth form doing subjects they are passionate about.

Yup. In case Mr Willetts is in any doubt, Conservatives and ordinary intelligent people DO NOT WANT more university places. I only repeat the sentiments of everyone else's comments in the faint hope that the volume of negative reaction to his proposals may engender a rethink.
The govt should be focussing on quality at universtities and promoting/supporting courses that turn out graduates with useful knowledge and disciplines. We DO NOT NEED tens of thousands of English, History, Psychology, Drama (etc....!) students each year.
Use the savings from reducing university places to enhance facilities for vocational educations on areas such as construction, selling, marketing, IT, policing and nursing.

Simon Newman

Geology is a very important science indeed. Not only oil is involved but the suitability of soils for building and civil engineering works and, very particularly, water resources which will be at a premium if our population continues to increase at such a high rate. Adequate geological input would have stopped the opening of white elepehant coal mines such as at Glenrothes.

However, I am quite gratified at the number here who have given support to my basic idea. It would, of course, allow a government to educate almost by quota - whatever is needed most as a skill.

Law-no! We are fast approaching the USA where one in 212 people have some kind of law degree.

I'm not aware of any evidence that the proportion of people going to university has any effect on national wealth. In fact the evidence is that there is no link at all.

Universities are essentially just a filter - sorting out the cleverest people for the benefit of employers. If everyone has degree then they fail even to do this and their usefulness is gone.

Posted by: Bishop Hill | September 23, 2008 at 09:28

This pretty much sums up the Tory view, and reminds me of their opposition to universal education in the first place. You think that the purpose of education (in fact the purpose of almost anything the state does) is a financial transaction, to make people more employable. Of course we need to educate people so that they can work, but education is about self-improvement, and about improving society as a whole; increasing our appreciation of art and literature, our understanding of science and nature, for the betterment of humanity.

We aren't just corporate drudges eeking out an existence to serve the interests of fat-cat CEOs, only worthy of existence for our "usefulness" to employers. We seek education to have better, happier and more enjoyable lives. The more people who get the chance to receive University education the better.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, you know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Passing Leftie,

You have a very rosy view of university life. The reality is, all too often, not as you describe and therein lies the problem.

You rather remind me of the more unworldly schoolmasters at the public school I attended in the 1950s. Alas the world, when I entered it, was not as I had been led to believe it should be!

Re passing leftie and "but education is about self-improvement, and about improving society as a whole; increasing our appreciation of art and literature, our understanding of science and nature, for the betterment of humanity." A simple observation: you do not need to go to university to achieve that.

Angelo Basu:
"I remember reading that Law was the cheapest subject to teach and that this had fuelled massive rises in the number of places. Has it really got good career prospects for those studying other than at the pre-1992 Universities and a handful of the traditionally strong Polys (eg Nottingham Trent)? There's only so many training contracts and pupillages around (and these were outnumbered by qualified law graduates even 20 years ago) - I'd have thought there was little or no prospect of a related career for the majority of those studying on newer courses at newer establishments. It isn't as if the course is intrinsically THAT interesting (speaking as a lawyer myself)."

Many students don't go on to have a career in law, although most of our undergrads do seem to go to Law School on graduation. But Law Departments still require students to write legibly (and trust me, that is not the case in every Department!), write coherently, and string ideas together into arguments. This makes a Law degree a lot more useful signifier to employers than many other degrees. Certainly our Law students seem to improve markedly in writing & analysis over the course of the degree.

Of course, the government certainly shouldn't be subsidising us. As it is we heavily subsidise the other parts of the University. What would benefit us would be freedom to set our own student intake numbers lower without risking loss of HEFCE funding.

"without risking loss of HEFCE funding"

- University wide HEFCE funding, I mean. Obviously any funding for Law should be proportional to the number of students doing Law. The problem is that it's all done centrally. We (Law) can't reduce our numbers, or the University may lose the funding it needs for other subjects which are less in demand. It seems like a bad system to me.

Let's suggest that we move Willetts to where he can do less damage - to a university!

I think `passing leftie` has the right approach and the doubters who disagree would probably not support another Oscar Wilde quotation, suggesting that while we are standing in the gutter, at least we are looking at the stars!
If we stick with the humdrum, utilitarian and banal, our society will never rise above this uninspired level. Such a rather narrow attitude will also do little to discourage comments on the lines of some of the foregoing; those that seem to trade in mindless personal abuse of people such as Willetts and which seem to be unworthy of those who have written them. Perhaps a little further education in the humanities would in that case not go amiss.

"Thirdly, if not for the formal qualifications we should be encouraging people into tertiary education for the rich experience it provides in finding independence, learning new cultures and broadening horizons."

Taxpayers don't find funding people to do a useful degree like medecine or law. But I doubt they'd be so keen to fund people just to have a "rich experience". Fact is that a lot of middle class people to university because they're expected to, not because they need to.

"If we stick with the humdrum, utilitarian and banal, our society will never rise above this uninspired level."

I don't see how degrees in sociology, golf management studies or modules that involve the study of David Beckham are above the humdrum, utilitarian and banal. I don't think you realise that a lot of us are opposed to university expansion because the new courses, rather than being culturally enlightening are just, well, rubbish.

David Willetts is wrong. There are already too many university graduates who are unable to find suitable work. Many of these graduates hold degrees from the former polytechnics that have no practical benefit, despite students paying for their maintenance costs and tuition fees.

Grade inflation is another problem which needs to be looked at.

The truth of the matter is that many people are just not suited to an academic education at degree level.

The Conservatives should be encouraging less academic individuals gain vocational qualifications so that Britain has sufficient numbers of plumbers, carpenters, joiners, electricians and other skilled trades people.

After all, when you wake up in the middle of the night to find water running down the wall of the spare bedroom, you need a plumber, not a media studies graduate.

The reality is that more people are needed to work in shops, bars and restaurants than in the media. These jobs do not require degrees.

Even better would be to make sure that all 11 year olds can read, write and count by the time they leave primary school, and that no 16 year old leaves school functionally illiterate.

Unfortunately, if you then examine the additional university degree courses that have actually been provided, particularly since 1997, these have largely involved sociology, media studies, theology (!!), law, gender studies, golf course management and a host of other pseudo subjects.

David_At_Home: as a Cambridge Theology graduate (where they've been teaching Theology for hundreds upon hundreds of years) I am both astounded and insulted by your brash assertion that such a degree is pointless. As part of my degree, for example, I studied Ancient, Arabic, Enlightenment and post-Modernist philosophy, languages, history, history of the philosophy of science and exegesis, amongst other things. To be able to absorb, analyse, collate and understand information in a limited amount of time using a great number of sources is an admirable and enviable skill, which is of great use in a huge number of sectors.
Incidentally, I would just love to know how the Law can be considered a 'pseudo subject'.

The universe, like a ball, comes to rest somewhere on this circular trench, which corresponds to a nonzero value of the field.

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