Higher education faces a learning curve

23 Aug 01
Like the sound of English batsmen's stumps being shattered, the picture of students, especially women, celebrating ever-better A-level results has fast become one of the traditional images of our summer.

24 August 2001

Last week the scene was played out again. For the nineteenth successive year the overall pass rate increased, with 89.8% of students gaining grades from A-E.

Last year the rate was 89.1%, and passes in 2001 were spread across a wider variety of subjects.

More than 250,000 students are heading off to higher education institutions as a result, with another 160,000 whose eventual fate was yet to be determined through the clearing system at time of writing.

In total, 426, 927 aspiring higher education students have applied – up from last year's total of 416, 405. Only 4,521 have given up on going on to university, slightly fewer than those who did in 2000.

The widening gap between results achieved by women and men reflects trends in other countries, such as Canada, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, although many women still have to make do with lower-paid jobs after leaving college.

The government appears to be making some headway on its target of getting 50% of all 18–30-year-olds into higher education by 2010. Currently, around 33% of under 21-year-olds participate in higher education.

'We are making steady progress to meeting our 50% target though we know it is a challenging one,' said a spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills.

Ministers were euphoric on publication of the results. 'Today is a day of celebration. For too long as a nation we have lagged behind our competitors, but we are on track to catch up,' said school standards minister Stephen Timms.

Professor Roderick Floud, president of the vice-chancellors' body, Universities UK, said: 'A university education is worth the investment, graduates will earn more and have more career choices open to them.'

However, if you scratch the surface of these results they may not be as straightforward as they seem.

Last week, that consistent thorn in the government's side, former Ofsted head Chris Woodhead, railed against the 'wretched examination' (A-levels) and the era of the 'bog-standard university'.

Bog-standard or not, this year's successful pupils certainly have a record number of higher education institutions to choose from – 336 – an increase of nearly 30% on last year's figure of 259.

But despite the range of choice, places remain unfilled. In 2000, 10,000 places were unclaimed, causing universities to hand back £35m in funding. This year the government has increased funding – an additional £412m to take the total up to £5.8bn – to try to increase the take-up. But that may not be enough to head off problems for institutions chasing students.

The National Union of Students claims the financial costs of gaining a degree are increasingly a deterrent for many 18-year-olds. It says debts average £12,000 for three-year courses and £15,000 for those on longer courses – for students in England – such as medicine or architecture.

The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education says the government's commitment to loans could scupper its 50% target because those from less wealthy backgrounds are deterred.

'The kind of people the government are trying to get into higher education are most likely to be put off by the size of debt. Middle-class kids are at an advantage,' said a Natfhe spokeswoman.

However, universities that are fulfiling their quotas are accused of 'dumbing-down', which puts many institutions in a situation where it seems they can please no one.

Owain James, president of the NUS, says this is also 'unfair' on the students who have just passed their A-levels.

Students who do take up a place are likely to find a demoralised teaching workforce when they arrive at their chosen institution. Natfhe claims that pay levels are 30% below those for comparable qualified jobs in the private sector and that staff retention levels are falling.

'While we support getting more and more people into higher education, you have to make sure that the lecturers have the time and the funding to support their students,' said a spokeswoman.

Morale could suffer further if teachers are not left to teach rather than deal with ever increasing bureaucracy, the union claims, mirroring the complaints of classroom teachers in secondary schools.

Central government funding is set to increase over the next few years by £268m – of which £110m is to support pay – in 2002/03 and by £298m (£170m for pay) in 2003/04, but that may not be enough to head off problems among staff. Industrial troubles cannot be ruled out.

This year's students could eventually find that their education experience is more rounded than they expect and does not end in the lecture hall.


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