Sunday, April 26, 2009

University places, time for a policy discussion 

Vince Cable is rightly stressing the tough decisions we need to make to face to financial storm. Some of his suggestions are easy to accept for LibDems. Scrapping ID cards for example. But there is at least one kite being flown that takes us beyond debated party policy.

In his posting on an ‘University for Berwick’ Mark Valladares eloquently shows why the expanding University programme can have huge appeal and a positive economic and social impact. But Vince is saying we may have to abandon the goal of 50% of our young people getting University level education. That would surely put the Berwick and other proposals firmly in the freezer.

I think we need to discuss this within the party rather soon, before the kite strings get into a public tangle of incompatible commitments.

We might also take another look at the long-term University option provided by my old stamping ground the OU – to give one example.

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Having attended university in a, possibly quintessential, university town, I whole heartedly understand how universities can drive and dominate the local economy. It can provide jobs for members of the local community, and also a young labour force to supply the local economy which inevitably grows up around it. All in all, a very good thing.

However, I disagree with the idea of government decreed artificially enforced target of young people entering higher education. I believe that all those with the ability to go to university should be able to go, regardless of social or economic background, and that that higher education should be free, fair and funded.

The idea of increasing university intake to 50% will indeed dilute the value of degrees in multiple ways. Firstly, more and more people with degrees will cheapen their value in the labour market. They will no longer be the key to the higher paying jobs or fast track careers that they once were, as each "graduate" position will be inundated with equally qualified applicants. They will in essence become the A or O levels of yesteryear, with MA's or Msc's becoming the new degrees.
Secondly, this could also lead to lowering standards with our higher education system. In order to fill the places required to meet this 50% target, many institutions (although probably not many from the Russell group) will have to lower entrance requirements or introduce more and more "fluff" degree courses. This resulting in higher drop out rates and degrees no employers want.

And also Vince is right, in this time of financial crisis, we also cannot afford it.
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