The Sunday Times

March 21st, 2010

The new university challenge is to unravel Labour’s mess

‘Legacy” is a word that has sneaked into political fashion. It has begun to replace “delivery”, which has proved to be so awkward. Labour grandees are often said to be considering their political legacies and I wonder what they really do believe they have bequeathed to the nation over the past 13 years. It is just conceivable that they imagine they have achieved something with education, education, education, as promised, but their educational legacy is a perfect blueprint for what not to do.

Take universities. You could not hope for a better example of how to get everything wrong. The Blair-Brown years have demonstrated that it is actually quite easy to bring down standards in universities, wreck the chances and dash the hopes of hundreds of thousands of teenagers and reduce employers to complaining publicly about the quality of today’s graduates.

Labour’s legacy to education is a disastrous combination of inflation and devaluation. They have inflated schoolchildren’s expectations, urging them to believe that 50% of young people should go to university. To meet such expectations, they have continued with the Tory initiative to inflate the supply of universities by giving the status to all kinds of tertiary education colleges and deflating the idea of what a university is. Meanwhile, they devalued the standards of A-levels to inflate the numbers of children who could pass them to go to more and more universities.

Naturally this became more and more expensive. Even though the government spent more and more, it was never enough, so universities were obliged to deflate their teaching and pastoral care to lower, cheaper levels. At the same time they devalued their degree standards to inflate the numbers of students passing and getting high marks. Meanwhile, students had to borrow more and more money from a government loan scheme to pay for these places, so some were forced to drop out and others graduated with terrifying debt loads. They now face the world as graduates in inflated numbers with inflated expectations, inflated debt, devalued degrees and deflated prospects.

The consequences are making themselves painfully felt right now. Last week the government was forced to announce that more than three-quarters of universities in England are to have their budgets cut for this September — some by nearly 14%. And the government’s Higher Education Funding Council for England warned that yet further cuts may be imposed later in the academic year. We can now watch for the cuts to be made in precisely the wrong places — such as the disgraceful axeing by King’s College London of its chair of paleography, the UK’s only chair in the subject.

These cuts come in a year that has seen a record 23% rise in the number of students applying to universities. Last week the Conservatives claimed that 2750,000 sixth-formers with good qualifying grades will fail to get into a university course this autumn. The head of Ucas, the universities clearing house, advised students who had not got into their chosen universities to forget about the clearing system and “to reappraise their aspirations” instead. That is a lot of disappointed sixth-formers in a generation that Labour has deliberately encouraged to see university education as both entitlement and necessity.

There can no longer be any doubt that A-levels have got much easier. The number of pupils getting three A grades, once a rarity even at top schools, is now one in six — twice as many as when Labour came into office. Reliable long-term research from Durham University shows that individuals of the same general ability level would now be expected to score about two A-level grades higher than they did 20 years ago. The result, as Tesco for one has pointed out, is that it is now hard for employers to differentiate between candidates. The same is true at university entrance: Imperial College London warned in 2008 that grade inflation had made A-level results “almost worthless” in choosing between university applicants.

For those who do get to university, debt is often a heavy burden. A study published last week found that 28% of students expected to accumulate debts of £20,000 at university. Meanwhile, the student loan system, supposedly monitored by the government, is an alarming mess. Last week a damning report from the National Audit Office (NAO) blamed both the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Student Loans Company (SLC) for failing to learn from last year’s mishandling of the grant application system. The head of the NAO questioned last week whether the SLC is actually capable of dealing with twice as many applications this year. What this means for students is long delays and constant anxiety. It is a disgrace.

After all this worry and sacrifice, new graduates are not rewarded by the expected good jobs and high salaries. Work is scarce and employers are sceptical about their qualifications and are saying so openly. The independent Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) recently published a manifesto calling on all political parties to abolish the target of getting 50% of under-30s into university. Carl Gilleard of AGR said this target has affected degree standards and creates problems for employers of graduates because they cannot be sure of the value of certain degrees: “It does not help young people’s life chances or represent a good return on their financial investment. It does little for the reputation of our universities either.”

No doubt all this was done with high-minded intentions in the name of equal opportunities. But a university in the true sense of the word is not a place of equality. It is a place of excellence. Academic excellence is elitist, of its nature. Years of bad schooling cannot be put right at an academic university by massaging the entry requirements or providing remedial classes. It is too late for that. As Chris Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University, said last week, diluting entry standards to make up for shortfalls in secondary education would soon mean we no longer had world-class universities.

What is so strange about Labour’s education policy is that it is at the same time both egalitarian and snobbish — egalitarian in insisting that all should have degrees and that higher education colleges are universities and snobbish in the old-fashioned belief that only a posh academic university degree really matters. And the tragedy of Labour’s education legacy is that is has done nobody much good.