Leader: The great British university con

For decades, governments have systematically undermined the value of a degree as education has been forced to operate under market conditions. 

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The UK’s reputedly world-class higher education sector has long been a source of pride and consolation for a diminished power. At first glance, universities have relentlessly expanded without any reduction in standards. Since 1990, the number of undergraduate degrees awarded has increased fivefold, while the proportion of Firsts granted has quadrupled. But this facade of success masks profound and long-standing problems. In this week’s cover story, Harry Lambert exposes what we call “the great university con”. For decades, successive governments have systematically undermined the value and prestige of a British degree as education has been forced to operate under market conditions. 

In a 2016 OECD study, which assessed basic skill levels among recent graduates from 23 countries, England ranked in the bottom third. In spite of spending about £21,000 per student (more than any country except the United States), England’s skill levels are around three times worse than the top eight countries (which spend around £15,000 per student). One in two recent British graduates is not in graduate work, a rate that has consistently risen since 2001.

The purpose of university expansion, pursued by both Conservative and Labour governments, was once a noble one. Lionel Robbins, a professor at the London School of Economics, and the author of the 1963 report on higher education, emphasised that “the standard traditionally attached to the term ‘degree’ in this country will be fully maintained”.

But it has not been. On 12 July, faced with the number of students achieving “good honours” – a First or 2:1 – rising from 47 per cent in 1994 to 79 per cent, Damian Hinds, the former education secretary, emphasised that “artificial grade inflation is not in anyone’s interests”. And yet, as Harry Lambert writes, the “perverse incentives” imposed by the state have made this a logical outcome.

In common with so many current issues, the origins of today’s problems go back to the market turn of the 1980s. The 1985 Jarratt Report declared that “universities are first and foremost corporate enterprises” and inaugurated a trend of continual marketisation. As students were rebranded as “customers”, institutions sought less to test them than to appease them. Grade inflation – designed to boost universities’ league table standing – has followed.

Subsequent reforms have merely compounded the problem. The decision by the 2010-15 coalition government largely to abolish direct state funding for university teaching (replaced by tuition fees of £9,000) introduced a system in which money “followed the student”, creating an additional incentive to manipulate standards and results.

The British higher education system retains some formidable strengths and the benefits of a university experience extend far beyond the awarding of a degree. The stereotype of students as indolent hedonists is undeserved (indeed, data suggests they have seldom been more abstemious). But grade inflation and the unqualified expansion of universities should end. For too long, the higher education sector has allowed its reputation to obscure a mediocre reality. British students – who now pay the developed world’s highest public university fees – deserve much better. 

The return of measles

In 2016, Britain achieved a health landmark when measles was eliminated. But a mere three years later the disease has returned to these islands and the World Health Organisation has removed the UK’s measles-free status. Largely because of a fall in vaccination rates, there have been 231 cases of measles reported in Britain this year. Social media has allowed old myths, such as the claim that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine causes autism, to spread with rapid speed (Donald Trump is among those to have advanced the debunked theory). As the memory of past epidemics has faded, parents have become more susceptible to anti-vaccine propaganda. Social media companies that host anti-vax groups and the government must demonstrate far greater vigilance.

The blurring of truth and falsehood we have come to expect in politics has seeped into matters of health. Just as political progress cannot be taken for granted, the resurgence of measles is a salutary reminder that a healthier world will not materialise by itself.

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