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The great university con: how the British degree lost its value

Never before has Britain had so many qualified graduates. And never before have their qualifications amounted to so little. 

This summer, a department at the University of Sheffield sent an email to students. A group of them had complained about their marks for an end-of-year essay. While a few had received Firsts, these students were given 2:2s and Thirds. “Thank you for raising the issue,” began the email, “and thank you also for your patience.” After reflection, the head of department and the director of “learning and teaching” had decided that, “our normal procedures… failed us. For this we apologise unreservedly”. The department had decided to “uplift all the marks… less at the top and more at the bottom”. The poorly performing students had their marks raised by nearly 40 per cent. The few who had done well saw their marks barely change. “Again, our apologies,” the message concluded, “but we hope that this is a satisfactory resolution.”

What happened at Sheffield is one part of a national story: the great university con. Over the past 30 years, successive governments, from Thatcher to Blair, to Cameron and May, have imposed a set of perverse incentives on universities. Their effect has been to degrade and devalue the quality of British degrees. Academic standards have collapsed. In many institutions, it is the students who now educate the universities, in what grades they will tolerate and how much work they are willing to do. “We have got to protect ourselves from complaints,” says Natalie Fenton, professor of media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. “It’s an endless process of dealing with students who haven’t been able to buy the grade they wanted.”

At a glance, British universities are a national success story. They have increased the number of undergraduate degrees they award fivefold since 1990, while the proportion of Firsts they hand out has quadrupled – from 7 per cent in 1994 to 29 per cent in 2019. For every student who got a First in the early 1990s, nearly 20 do now. Masters’ degrees, meanwhile, are nearly ten times as common as they were. Universities have, it seems, managed to surge in both size and quality. And they have done it all while spending comparatively little on teaching, and despite a wave of sudden changes to how they operate. In no other publicly funded sector has so dramatic an expansion seemingly cost so little and achieved so much. Our universities, we are regularly assured, are “world class”. They are a prime British export; international students flock to study in the UK.

This narrative is useful. It allows government ministers to tout the UK’s influence, university management to pay themselves befittingly, and students to appear exceptional. And with each year, it is propped up by record grades. The numbers are remarkable and little understood. The proportion of students getting “good honours” – a First or 2:1 – has leapt from 47 to 79 per cent: at 13 universities, more than 90 per cent of students were given at least a 2:1 last year. And Oxbridge is leading the charge: 96 to 99 per cent of its English, history and languages students get “good honours”.

Damian Hinds, the former education secretary, offered an anodyne response on 12 July, following the publication of the latest figures. “Artificial grade inflation,” he said, “is not in anyone’s interests.”

But it is. Grade inflation is the inevitable outcome of the system universities operate under. There is little reason to suspect that the system is about to change, or is even understood. “The logical conclusion of the current drift is that by 2061, 100 per cent of people [will] get Firsts,” says Anthony Seldon, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham. In fact, if the next 20 years are like the past 20, it won’t take half that time.

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This supposed university miracle can only have happened in one of three ways. The first is that schools have, over the past 30 years, supplied universities with students of a far higher calibre than in the recent past. This would be a notable achievement, as the university students of the past were the select few – in the 1970s and 1980s between 8 and 19 per cent of young British adults went on to higher education, whereas 50 per cent now do. The second is that universities have taken historically indifferent students and turned them into unusually capable graduates. And the third is the reality: the university miracle is a mirage.

Never before has Britain had so many qualified graduates. And never before have their qualifications amounted to so little. Each year, far from creating graduates of an unparalleled calibre, Britain is producing waves of sub-prime students – students who are nevertheless almost all being highly rated. As Robert Penhallurick, reader in linguistics at Swansea, put it to a House of Commons select committee inquiry into universities, which reported in 2009, there has been “a lack of courage, a failure to stand by the long-standing hallmarks of good academic work”. Richard Royle, senior lecturer in law at the University of Central Lancashire at the time, added in his evidence to the committee: “There is a conspiracy of silence among academics.” If standards had actually been upheld, Lee Jones, reader in politics at Queen Mary, University of London, tells me ten years on, “vast swaths of people currently going to university would fail”.

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In February 1990, four lecturers at the University of Swansea sent a letter to senior management. They were concerned about the academic standards of a Master’s degree offered by a recently created department, the Centre for Philosophy and Health Care. The course, they said, was full of flaws. Anyone who could pay was accepted. The teaching was brief and scarcely philosophical. The centre’s director had sole internal control of grading. And nearly everyone passed, including two students revealed to be plagiarists.

The university responded by waging a three-year war on the lecturers. Two of them were suspended, a third resigned and a fourth, Anne Maclean, told the Guardian: “It is outrageous what is going on. If we cannot stop this, then it is not worth anyone of academic integrity staying on in academic life.” She became the third academic to be suspended. Eventually, after a series of sham internal reports, a Privy Council inquiry exonerated the lecturers in May 1993, reinstating them. A battle for academic freedom and university quality had, it seemed, been won.

The “battle for Swansea”, as it was called, now looks like a warning shot, a pre-emptive flare, fleetingly noticed and soon ignored. In retrospect, it was a fight for control at a time when power in universities was beginning to shift. The dispute began in the waning days of the Thatcher administration, under education secretary Keith Joseph, one of the original architects of today’s university system. For Thatcher and Joseph, universities were run as archaically as the public utilities. The academy needed to be governed by the market and measured by its metrics. “Before Thatcher, universities were… run for the benefit of staff with government money,” said Terence Kealey, a professor of biochemistry and former adviser to Thatcher, upon news of her death in 2013. “She was determined to introduce a much higher level of accountability for public funding and greater accountability for students as customers,” he recalled.

In 1985, the Thatcher government published the Jarratt Report, which stressed that “universities are first and foremost corporate enterprises”. The problem, the report argued, was “the tradition of vice-chancellors being scholars first and acting as a chairman of [an academic] senate carrying out its will”, rather than “leading it strongly”. Scholars should not run universities – business leaders must.

The management at Swansea University had evidently imbibed the Jarratt Report. What shocked university management was not the low standards of their Master’s degree, but the insolence of their academics. “If this had happened in a company,” Brian Clarkson, then head of the philosophy department, is reported to have said, “and I had been managing director, these people would have been up the road the moment they kicked up the fuss they did”. For eight centuries, European universities had been run largely as democracies, with university executives beholden to the will of an academic senate. In the Thatcherite future, they would be run on entirely different principles.

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According to Professor Fenton of Goldsmiths, “Students come to us now with an entirely different mindset. They want to know what you want to hear in order to get a First.” Students, she says, turn up expecting to find “bite-sized chunks of knowledge that you put in certain boxes. It’s that learnt process of gaming an A* [at A-level]. That’s the complete opposite to what a university education is.” Or rather, was. “That’s what changed,” she says. “Students have been shackled in the way they learn.”

In 1921, a government inquiry into education anticipated this reductive tendency in schooling. “Education is not the same thing as information,” wrote Henry Newbolt, the English historian and author of the report. “It proceeds not by the storing of lifeless facts, but by teaching the student to follow the different lines on which life may be explored.” In the century since, rote learning has been a persistent problem in schools, but it had, until recently, been largely absent in universities.

As schools have become ever more rigid and exam-driven, the contagion has spread. As one Russell Group professor, wary of being named, puts it: “In schools now, students are being virtually spoon-fed, and that is feeding through.”

“Students are not taught to read, quickly and critically, and to communicate their ideas,” seconds Jones. “These most fundamental things are not being taught in schools. When we ask them to write, they are incredibly disorientated. And the students who are prepared are incredibly frustrated.”

The only evidence that schools are supplying universities with record numbers of exceptional students is rising attainment at A-level. However, by 2009, grade inflation at A-level was so widely recognised that a new grade – the A* – had to be introduced for the following academic year. Ironically, while fuelling their own grade inflation, universities were among those who called for overly high grades to be curbed in schools. Yet on its website, the Russell Group now cites inflated A-level grades in justifying its universities’ grade inflation. “As attainment at school rises,” its director of policy wrote last July, “it is reasonable to expect this will feed through into higher attainment at degree level.”

In 2007, Robert Coe, then a professor of education at Durham University, detailed the scale of the problem. Coe’s research looked at how students of similar inherent ability compared over time. By using a standardised test, similar to IQ, one could see how equivalent students had been graded differently at A-level. The results were startling. Those who were being given Ds and Es in the late 1980s were being given Bs and Cs by the mid-2000s. British pupils did not measurably improve on any international metric during that time, nor have they since, Coe confirms to me.

“Ideas that students readily understood ten to 15 years ago, they struggle to understand today,” Peter Dorey, professor of British politics at the University of Cardiff, told the Commons inquiry in 2009. “Many of them are semi-literate.” Dorey described seminars in which students sat listlessly, waiting to be told how to “pass our exams”. “They will brazenly admit to having read nothing,” he told the hearing.

This description is familiar to all students of the 2010s. A recent history of art graduate from the University of Edinburgh arrived at the ancient university having outgrown her parochial school, thrilled by the idea of bringing art and history together. “And then you sit in these silent seminars, with people who don’t want to be there, taught by someone who doesn’t really want to be there. Everything I learnt at university I taught myself.”

Another graduate I know, who read politics and economics at the University of York, was bewildered by the culture and the workload. End-of-year exams never deviated significantly from freely available past papers – you simply had to know the trick – while essays were scarce. “My father wrote four times as many essays for his First from the University of East Anglia in the 1980s,” he tells me.


Factory line: students graduating from the University of Cambridge​. Credit: Alamy

There is little indication that universities are turning students into exceptional, or even competent, graduates. “The whole character of the place has changed,” says Stuart Derbyshire, formerly a lecturer at the University of Birmingham. “We have far fewer essays, far less small-group teaching.” Surveys reaffirm this. One by the Higher Education Policy Institute, an industry think tank, suggests British students have taken to working less over the past five years, when grade inflation has been most rampant. Its president, Bahram Bekhradnia, notes that when European students transfer to Britain, they describe the universities as “far less demanding” than their own.

Perhaps the British simply do more with less. Bekhradnia thinks that “impossible, arrogant and hubristic”. Indeed, it seems improbable. If it were true, and the proportion of exceptional students had really quadrupled since 1994, the generations coming through would be a demographic phenomenon. One would expect to see their brilliance in the data, from literacy and numeracy levels to productivity. The media would be rife with articles on displaced workers in their forties and fifties, pushed aside to make way for the “genius generation”. Millennials would deserve a quite different moniker: magnificents, perhaps.

These are not the terms being used to describe today’s young graduates. And their supposed brilliance can be found in no set of official statistics. Employment rates among young adults are unimpressive. British productivity has been stagnant for the past decade, and the graduate premium is weaker than ever. Most tellingly, in 2016, when the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) studied basic skill levels among recent graduates from 23 countries, England ranked in the bottom third.

According to their study, one in five graduates in England could not handle literacy tasks more complicated than understanding the instructions on a packet of aspirin, while the numeracy level of 28 per cent was limited to estimating the fuel left on a petrol gauge. These rates were around three times worse than the top eight countries, which spend around $19,000 per student. England spends $26,000 per student, more than any country except the US, which spends $30,000.

“Universities do nothing for basic skills,” says Simon Field, co-author of the OECD report Building Skills for All: A Review of England. “No one in the university world sees [developing students’ skills] as their job, but on the other hand, they’re quite happy to take anybody.”

England, he adds, is the only country in the OECD where the literacy and numeracy levels of 16- to 24-year-olds is no greater than that of 55- to 65-year-olds. “Levels of numeracy across the UK are low, and, if anything, are getting worse over time,” says Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England. A “blight of innumeracy”, he says, is “posing big costs on individuals, economies and societies”. Such a blight would have shocked an earlier economist and key architect of the postwar university world: Lionel Robbins.

In 1963, Robbins, a professor at the London School of Economics since 1929, published what would become a totemic report on higher education. A staunch believer in capitalist markets, he criticised John Maynard Keynes and hired Friedrich Hayek. But when it came to universities, he grasped a reality that later reformers misunderstood: that a university education was a public good.

“Excellence is not,” wrote Robbins, “something that can be bought any day in the market.” It was something to be nurtured and guarded. For expansion to serve its purpose, “the standard traditionally attached to the term ‘degree’ in this country will be fully maintained”.

Robbins advocated a near tripling of the number of school leavers going to university by 1980, from one in 20 to one in eight. The government would have to commit to decades of investment in higher education. With enough funding, universities would, in turn, uphold their standards – continuing to bring elite education to a wider, less selective pool of students.

“The essential aim of a first degree,” Robbins explained, “should be to teach the student how to think.” What was needed was “regular personal contact” and “the regular and systematic setting and returning of written work”. Academics could only offer so much if they were free to teach. Though a pre-eminent scholar, Robbins was categorical: a lecturer’s research should “naturally grow out of teaching”. He went on: “We should deplore any artificial stimulus to research.” Published work, he added, “counts for too much”. Erudite teachers who never published were nevertheless “priceless assets” to any university.

All of Robbins’s key recommendations were accepted upon publication. New universities opened, participation rose and, by 1980, spending per student was nearly 50 per cent higher than in 1960. Most crucially, academic standards were upheld, as they had been since the 1830s, when universities were founded in Durham and London after centuries of resistance from Oxbridge. Emulating academic excellence was an absolute; Durham brought in examiners from Oxford to moderate its degrees.

As Britain industrialised, new university colleges sprang up in England’s major cities. But none of them was initially granted the power or title of a full university – their students sat the exams set by London or Durham. The established universities guarded the meaning of the word “degree”, while the colleges served decades-long apprenticeships. Nottingham waited 67 years for its charter, through two world wars and the end of empire.

In the 1960s, new universities were created in many cities, including York and Norwich, but their standards were rigorously policed. They consciously imitated the ancient universities. Entry standards were high. Regular and challenging work was set. Standards for a First were consistent, which made them rare; around one in ten at Oxbridge and lower elsewhere. In the 1970s, government funding stalled, but universities – then still largely run by academics – responded by temporarily curbing expansion, ensuring funding per student continued to rise. This was the university world that had been bequeathed to Margaret Thatcher.

How is it possible that a five-fold expansion in university numbers since 1990, the year Thatcher resigned as prime minister, has been so ineffective? The paradox is simpler than it seems. Universities are governed by a set of incentives, laid down by successive governments. What they are neither incentivised nor mandated to provide is a baseline of quality education. While a handful of universities demand quality, and some students choose to work hard, the system is not designed to ensure either. As many academics report, statistics suggest and students widely know, it is possible to sail through university with a 2:1 or First without working or learning very much at all.

This is precisely what the government implicitly encourages. It is the rational outcome of the system under which universities operate. Call it the self-perpetuating spiral of shattering standards. It starts with the academic. They are faced with an inadequate student: why do they give them a 2:1? Because they are being pressured to by university management. That pressure is typically implicit; occasionally it is explicit.

At Queen Mary last year, a memo issued by the university business school demanded that lecturers ensure at least 60 per cent of students were given a 2:1 or better in every assessment. This, it made clear, was not “an aspirational target for marks”, but rather a “minimum threshold” to ward off “further investigation”.

In a system that upheld academic standards, the lecturers who gave out too many good degrees would be investigated. In reality, those who hold the line imperil themselves. In the late 2000s, Derbyshire attempted to do so while lecturing at the University of Birmingham, awarding top marks sparingly. “I was consistently grading below all my colleagues,” he tells me. His grades were, like the recent essays at Sheffield, eventually scaled up. When he objected, an external examiner “schooled” him on the new reality of universities. “He stated it was no longer 1986 and that we [could not] mark like we did in the past. We must, he said, look harder for excellence. I regret that I did not press him on what he meant by excellence.”

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Why does management impel lecturers to grade up? Because universities need good grades to rank highly in league tables. First released in 1993, league tables are now the prime driver of where students apply. There are three key league tables, including those compiled by the Times and the Guardian. They all result in similar rankings, producing an analogous handful of extremely limited and obscurely calculated data points. What is clear is that grades are critical to a university’s ranking. They affect it both directly, as one of the main measures of performance, and indirectly, through a crucial survey of final-year students. Employment prospects, another major part of the rankings, are affected by grades too. Good honours are now so common that many graduate employers will not take students without at least a 2:1. Grade inflation begets grade inflation.

The data in the tables is impossible to verify or calculate independently. The Guardian’s, for example, has since 2008 been entirely constructed by one man: a contractor who also works at Kingston University. These league tables are given credibility by the newspapers that publish them, without those papers having either the desire or ability to affirm their legitimacy. They are not overseen by universities or government. There is limited academic research to verify the accuracy or relevance of any of the data in them. And yet, they direct the decisions of hundreds of thousands of students year after year.

No measure in the tables is without evident failings. No rational student would, when surveyed, traduce the university whose degree they are about to carry, no matter how poor it was; this perversity is widely recognised by recent graduates. The student-staff ratio in the tables bears little relation to publicly available data. Spend per student is a similarly nebulous measure, open to manipulation. And the employment prospects measure in this year’s Guardian table ranks Oxford behind 28 universities, including De Montfort and Bradford. The only measure with any meaning – and it is limited – is entry standards, which isn’t a measure of a university but of its reputation among recent applicants.

League tables don’t measure what matters. They measure what was initially available and what has since been spuriously created. And they now determine not only the decisions of students, but the fate of every university.

In 1992, the John Major government made two pivotal decisions. The first was to turn all the UK’s polytechnics into universities, nearly doubling their number. “Polys” had been local teaching institutions that offered both shorter, more practical courses and “degree equivalents”. They existed to offer an alternative to university. Few of their staff did research. But the Major government wanted more university students without having to fund expansion. In one linguistic stroke, they could have them.

The power to award degrees, a right that had been rigorously guarded for decades, was handed out overnight. At the same time the government decided, in a second, key change, that university funding would now partly depend on a nascent programme, the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) – an attempt to measure the quality of academic research. As new universities, the polys would be eligible for this funding too. What now mattered to institutions above all was their RAE rating. As the Institution of Engineering and Technology would note years later, “brilliant teaching departments would be shut down if they didn’t publish research”. It would be irrational for a lecturer to focus on teaching. They must publish or perish. “I was able to witness at first hand,” Geoffrey Alderman, professor of politics at the University of Buckingham, has said, “the sacrifice of a formerly strong teaching mission on the altar of RAE performance.”

That sacrifice, proposed by Thatcher and prepared by Major, was perpetuated by Blair. Academic freedom had been weakened. The power to award degrees had been abruptly handed out. And an artificial priority had been given to research, just as Robbins had tried to avoid. Yet with strong oversight, the Labour government could have upheld the meaning of a degree.

But Blair, like prime ministers before and after him, wanted more graduates. To enforce standards, with more students, would mean either swaths of people failing – or the government instantly improving the education of new university students. The first was untenable, and the second impossible. And so standards were sacrificed. British universities could not have more than two of these three characteristics: big, cheap, good.

The government could not openly shatter standards. Nor did it need to. It simply had to create a system that could not possibly uphold them, while claiming that it would. Blair likely believed that Britain could both be big and brilliant. Like Boris Johnson and Brexit, British universities could both have their cake and eat it. A new body was born to oversee this impossibility: the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).

To an unsuspecting student, the QAA may sound like a body that checks the standards of its degree. In reality, the QAA “has never been concerned with standards”, says Bahram Bekhradnia of the Higher Education Policy Institute. All it does, Alan Ryan, professor of politics at Oxford, has explained, is “insist on a particular form of bureaucratic packaging”.

For each degree, universities must describe what a student will learn. But the QAA does not judge if anything is learnt, nor does it question the content of a course. As the QAA has itself said: “We aim to ensure that institutions have effective processes in place but we do not judge the standards themselves.”

Its focus on processes is notable. In the Robbins report, “standards” is mentioned 72 times. “Processes” is mentioned twice, and neither is in relation to the quality of degrees. In 2009, the Commons committee demanded that the QAA should be reformed and renamed, with a duty to “safeguard, and report on, standards” annually to parliament. In the decade since, grade inflation has rocketed. Parliament awaits its first briefing.

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In 2011, David Willetts, then universities minister, chose to ignore the findings of the 2009 committee. Instead, he simply made the spiral of shattering standards more vicious. The coalition all but eliminated direct government funding for university teaching. In turn, it raised tuition fees from £3,225 to £9,000. This meant that government money now “followed the student”. The fate of universities would hang on the decisions of 18-year-olds.

Universities had to give out good grades to satisfy students. That held up their ranking in league tables, which ensured new students. Those students brought with them the funding on which universities survived. Willetts lauded the competitive market he had created. But universities were not competing to provide an education. They were competing to manipulate and massage the metrics that governed their survival.

Nothing was done to control practices reported to the select committee. “It is the worst-kept secret in the academic world that, for unseen examination papers,” the committee was told, “most tutors provide their students with the contents of the paper beforehand.”

“Difficult areas of the syllabus are either omitted in their entirety or simply not examined,” they heard. These failings persist. And now, as then, should these tricks fail, marks can always simply be “uplifted”, as they were at Sheffield.

Last year, a different, much shallower Commons inquiry blithely lauded top universities for delivering value. The report mentioned degree standards once, in passing. “It is simply not in the interests of universities to take students without the potential to succeed at university,” Universities UK, the body of university vice-chancellors, had said in evidence. By making success a bar low enough for almost any student to step over, they have ensured that is true.

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The tripling of tuition fees had another effect that has scarcely been noticed. Thanks to a fiscal illusion that has only just been corrected, the cost of university has been almost entirely hidden from government spending since 2011.

Tuition fees are paid to universities by government, on behalf of students. When a graduate earns over £25,000 in a given year, they pay back some of this “loan”. It is not, however, really a loan “in any sense”, says Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). “You’re not going to have bailiffs coming after you.” But under the government’s accounting rules, calling it a loan meant that tuition payments did not add to the government deficit. Willetts could run up a tab, and the Treasury could act like a tab did not exist.

Willetts saw this as getting university funding “out of public spending”. This was a mirage. He could only separate university funding from government spending in the short run. Eventually, someone will have to pay for Britain’s university miracle, and it will be the future British taxpayer.

So far, the outstanding cost of university tuition loans has added £105bn – around 5 per cent of GDP – to the UK’s debt. By the 2040s, according to Department for Education forecasts, it will have added £460bn, or nearly 12 per cent of GDP. The Office for Budget Responsibility projects that it will remain at above 10 per cent of GDP for decades thereafter.

With low interest rates, such a mountain of debt is manageable. When rates rise, that will change. The precise cost to government may also be underestimated. If university education turns out to be less useful than expected, the IFS points out, and future graduate earnings are even slightly lower than forecast, the taxpayer’s tab will rise rapidly. That seems plausible. In 2011, the government projected that it would end up paying for 30 per cent of the student loan book. That rate has since risen five times. It is now estimated at 54 per cent.

“Graduate earnings have turned out to be so much worse than previously expected,” says Paul Johnson. That is partly because one in two recent British graduates is not in graduate work, a rate that has consistently risen since 2001. This has not surprised Ken Mayhew, a labour economist at Oxford, who questioned university expansion at that time. “If anything, my views have hardened since then,” says the professor. “It’s a big ‘if’ [as to whether] people’s capabilities are increased at university.”

The UK is, at great future cost, bankrolling a university system that in no way resembles the world it was supposed to expand. Like a frog in boiling water, universities have been slowly transformed. “You get more and more uncomfortable,” says the Russell Group professor, “but you never quite jump out.”

The future health of the British economy is now, in no small part, in the hands of the magnificents. But in no meaningful way have they been prepared for that burden. In the name of social mobility, an elite university education has been sold to successive generations of students. An emaciated, grossly expanded education has been delivered. “The real tragedy,” says Derbyshire, “is we’re wasting the money, and worst of all, the time, of young people. That is unconscionable.”

Harry Lambert was the creator and editor of May2015.com, the New Statesman’s general election site

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website. He tweets at @harrytlambert. 

This article appears in the 21 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great university con