AT THE beginning of the academic year, the higher-education world is facing an unexpected debate. Is it, or was it ever, possible, or even desirable, to provide university education for half of all school leavers?
Ever since it was first promoted by Tony Blair as part of his “education, education, education” drive, the notion has had more sceptics than has commonly been admitted, their arguments — roughly amounting to the view that more means less, in quality, anyway — usually damned as elitism.
This summer, however, their position has gained currency. Statements saying that graduate status will ensure good jobs, better health, and a longer life are increasingly questioned. Last month, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reported that many graduates were ending up in what had traditionally been regarded as non-graduate jobs.
A new booklet, Informed Choices, from the Russell Group of top universities, seeks to help applicants choose between university courses. It lists five job categories where graduates end up after university: traditional graduate (barristers, doctors, engineers); modern graduate (accountants and journalists); new graduate (marketing managers and computer-games designers); niche graduate (hotel managers, nursing, and retail managers); and non-graduate (jobs where a degree is not required).
THE Russell Group splits school teaching between secondary (traditional graduate) and primary (modern graduate) categories. And it is not clear why nursing is seen as a niche area of employment rather than a modern graduate job.
Not surprisingly, considering the spread of courses at Russell Group universities, Informed Choices seems to favour students who are studying for A levels that will encourage entry into the subjects studied by those seeking traditional graduate careers and offered by Russell Group universities.
As more 18-year-olds see growing numbers of new graduates working, at least initially, as bartenders, waiters, and call-centre “advisers”, on not much more than the minimum wage, many are reportedly having second thoughts about the wisdom of incurring debts of £30,000 or more, which require repayments totalling more than £50,000, according to government calculations.
At the same time, some industries — construction, for example — have announced a real skill shortage, and the need to recruit more apprentices.
AMONG those choosing an academic path, this year’s A-level results suggest that more entrants plumped for traditional academic subjects, presumably in the hope of places on traditional courses in the older universities. These universities are already taking advantage of the change in mood among students, helped by the removal, this year, of the cap on student numbers which has allowed them to increase undergraduate numbers.
So, where does this leave those mainly post-1990 universities that expanded towards the 50-per-cent goal? How easy will it be to fill non-traditional courses, when potential students might now consider that there could be better and cheaper ways of qualifying in subjects such as golf-course management, for example; and whether a degree in photography, or media or film studies, which generated £50,000-worth of debt repayments, will really help to lead to that career in the media which they dreamed of.
They may reflect that £9000-worth of fees per year for a degree in any subject is good value when private schools are charging that to study for just one A level. Indeed, with the borrow-now, pay-later, approach offered by the Government’s present student-funding regime, there is nothing to pay back until a graduate earns more than £21,000 a year.
ONE way forward is to recognise that the school system is required to teach pupils a much wider range of subjects than in the past, and that postponing specialisation until later will require universities to change the nature of their degree courses.
There should be a focus on rigour, and more debate between the universities and professional associations and trade bodies about the content and level of degrees. This can be reflected in degree courses that provide exemption from entry-level qualifications in professional exams — as has always been the case with some traditional degree subjects, and many modern degree courses.
At the same time, better career guidance in schools can help students to decide whether university is the best route for them at 18, or whether it might be preceded by, say, an apprenticeship or period in the workplace. The success over the past 50 years of the Open University shows that a degree course does not have to start immediately after school.
These are issues that the 15 Cathedral Group church universities will have to face in the next few years. They have retained the traditional and crucial part played by their predecessors in keeping the nation’s schools running. Teachers are needed now more than ever, with the growth in the school population over the next few years.
The Cathedral Group as a whole has now also acquired a reputation for the successful teaching of health professionals. It also has a stake in some traditional academic areas, notably theology and religious studies; but, if it is to remain financially viable at its current size, it must still be alive to the changing trends in higher education over the coming decade. Any change in attitude to university by school-leavers could have a profound effect on some of the smaller universities.
John Howson is a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University.