How British higher education became corrupted

Education is a first rate example of how quasi-commercialism can corrupt. It was a pincer movement from the bottom and the top, from schools to universities. Prior to the end of the 1980s our universities had been funded for decades by the University Grants Committee (UGC) which was made up academics. The UGC received an annual sum of money allocated by the Government to higher education. The UGC then allocated this  to the universities. This was not a perfect system because the academics tended to favour the older universities over the older regardless of performance. However, broadly speaking it worked and most importantly there was no pressure on universities to tout for students regardless of quality. This in turn meant that academic standards were maintained. Indeed, the newer universities were very sparing in their granting of degrees because they wished to build their academic reputation.

The Thatcher Government changed all that. They first cut in real terms the funding of given to the UGC, then abolished the UGC in 1987 to be replaced by the University Funding Council (UTC) which was manned not by academics but businessmen.  The money was then primarily attached to  the individual – a second criterion based on the quality of research was also introduced but it was the numbers of students which brought in the large majority of the money. This forced universities to actively compete for students. This might not have mattered too much if the numbers of students had remained static but it did not because the Thatcher Government began the push towards dramatically expanding student numbers without a corresponding increase in funding.  This meant that spending per student was reduced and universities had to get as many students as they could to maintain income.  That alone caused universities  to drop their standards, both in terms of who they accepted and the class of degrees they awarded, because universities with a reputation for high entry standards and strict marking of degrees risked being shunned for those with a reputation for being laxer.  To take on stark statistic: in 1970 less than 40% of degrees awarded by British universities were firsts and upper seconds: the figure for these classes of degree awarded in 2006 is over 60%. 

The massive increase in student numbers from the late 1980s meant that the average quality of student was lowered. This is not a subjective judgement.  IQ  is  distributed within  the  British  population approximately as follows: IQ below 90 25%, IQ 90-110 50%, IQ Above 110 25%. In 1970 less than 10% of school-leavers went to university. They could all comfortably come from those in the 111+ range (they will not have done but most would). Raise the numbers to the current level of around 40% and as a simply matter of arithmetic, many must have IQs of less than 111 and because a significant part of those with above average IQs  will not go to university, there must be significant numbers now going to university with IQs below of 100.  Degree courses had to be lowered simply to cater for the less able. This was done in three ways: traditional degrees became less demanding; a swathe of new subjects such as media studies and tourism were granted degree status and the standard of marking was relaxed. The result has been a reversal of the situation when roughly a third of students obtained firsts or upper seconds to a situation now where two thirds receive a first or upper second.    

Because the increase in student numbers has not been met by a proportionate increase in state funding, staff-student ratios have increased, teaching time for each student reduced, both in terms of direct instruction and the time available to staff for marking.

To these attacks on university standards were added eventually the toxic effects of the poison injected into the opposite end of the education  system. “Progressive, child-centred education” really gained a hold in the 1960s. Anti-competitive and ideologically driven, the grammar schools were first almost destroyed, ironically rescuing the public schools which were on their financial knees by the mid-sixties because of the drain of middleclass pupils to free grammar schools, and teaching  methods gradually corrupted so that children were not challenged over errors and all opinions (at least the politically correct ones) became equally valid”.

The progressive ideal was greatly furthered by the introduction in the 1980s of a single school-leaving exam (the GCSE) to replace the CSE and O Level’. Had assessment remained entirely by final (synoptic) exams, The introduction of the GCSE would still have been mistaken because no  examination can meaningfully assess  the broad range of ability displayed by those who sit it – there has been a tacit recognition of this by the inclusion of questions and course tasks of different difficulty within a GCSE subject and candidates can choose to do the hard or the easy and this is reflected in their grades. The exam consequently says nothing about the standard of the candidate as such because the mark tells you nothing about the difficulty of the tasks attempted: for example someone taking just the harder questions in an exam  could score the same mark as someone attempting only the easy questions.

Mistaken as the exam was in principle, it was further damaged by the inclusion of substantial amounts of coursework – cue plagiarism and third party out-of-school help – and coaching by teachers, licit and illicit (the licit includes teachers being able to take an initial piece  of coursework by pupils and making suggestions for  its re-writing) and the use of modular exams (exams which tested only part of the course) which can be retaken several times during a course.

The school examination system has been further contaminated by the various examination boards becoming nakedly commercial bodies who compete greedily for candidates. The result is similar to that experienced by universities: standards have been dropped to attract business. The old practice of setting percentages for those gaining a grade and for those passing was dropped allowing any number of people to gain any grade.  Freed of this constraint grades have inexorably risen year after year for both GCSEs and the university entrance A Levels. So bad has the inflation become that A* grades had to be introduced because A grades were so plentiful that they allowed no distinction to be made between the better candidates. Predictably, the A* grade has now met the same fate as the simple A.

Finally, because so many more pupils were taking GCSE than O Level, the standard of the exam had to be reduced for the same reason that the standard of the degree was reduced: the number of less able students taking the courses increased dramatically. The dire failure of GCSE began to be acknowledged by even the Blair Government with first the Education Secretary Alan Johnson announcing that coursework would be reduced in some subjects and abolished in a few such as maths (the Times 6 10 2006) and then a junior education minister Lord Adonis announcing that consideration was being given to allowing state schools to substitute the international GCSE (IGCSE) for the GCSE (Daily Telegraph 25 10 2006). The IGSCE is an exam closer to the old O Level and is taken by pupils outside Britain and increasingly by private schools in Britain.

The upshot of all this is a decline in academic standards generally. The decline of GCSE standards meant A Level pupils began their A Level courses less well prepared than they had been previously which meant A-Levels had to be reduced in difficulty which meant that those arriving at university were less well prepared and the degree courses had to be made easier.

A further  pernicious consequence of the  gigantic expansion of university numbers is the abolition of  student grants and the imposition of tuition fees. This is not only discouraging students from poorer homes – there is now a lower proportion of workingclass in the British university population than there was in the 1960s – and leaving most students with considerable debts, but also creating a mentality amongst students, politicians, educationalists and indeed the general public, that education is only a tool to obtain a better job, that it has no general value.

The irony is that even at the economic level this mentality is at odds with reality.  Successive governments have claimed that the lifetime earnings of a graduate are on average £450,000 greater than that of a non-graduate. This may have been true of graduates before the great expansion in student numbers but it is not now. The £450,000 has been revised to £100,000, a pretty small sum divided by the 40 years of the average working life. Of course that figure, even if it is true, hides a multitude of difference, with some degrees being next to worthless either because of the subject or the class of degree obtained.

What should be done? Ideally we should return to a system whereby students have their higher education fully funded and a maintenance grant paid.  This could be done by reducing the percentage of school-leavers going to university at the taxpayers’ expense to 20%. Mad you say? Well, Germany, the most successful European and arguably First World economy sends only 25% to university. Nor am I saying only 20% of school leavers should go to university in Britain, merely that the taxpayer should only fund 20%. There would still be opportunity for a would-be student who did not qualify for state paid-for degrees to fund a degree themselves, either on a full or part-time basis. The quality of degrees should also be improved by withdrawing state funding from what the public quite rightly thinks of as “mickey-mouse” degrees. The quality of school exams also needs to be raised significantly to prepare students for university.

 I said that would be the ideal funding solution, but there is a very large fly in the ointment: the EU. As things stand any prospective student legally resident within the EU has to be educated at British universities on the same basis as British students. The reintroduction of free university education and maintenance grants for British students would have to extended to EU residents as things stand. (It is worth considering in the context of EU interference in our affairs whether  the reason why tuition fees were introduced and maintenance grants abolished was because of the cost of educating non-British EU students. I rather suspect it was). The answer would be, as in so many things, to leave the EU and be once more masters in our own house.

 Would a reduction to state-funding for only 20% disadvantage the poorest students? It could conceivably do that if selection procedures are left as they are because they will still unfairly favour the middle-classes because they tend to get the better tuition at school.  How can this be avoided? By using IQ tests as well as A-Level or equivalent qualification results to determine entry. This would allow universities to meaningfully assess the abilities of students from different background. For example, suppose the choice was between someone from a public school with three As  and an IQ of 120 and a pupil from a comprehensive with a bad educational record who has three Bs and an IQ of 140, it would make perfect sense to take the comprehensive pupil because they would have the much greater potential.

As I write this I can hear the politically correct chanting their favourite anti-IQ tests mantras of “IQ tests only test how good you are at IQ tests” and “There is no correlation between IQ and academic achievement”. The answer to the first is that you might as well say that maths exams only tests maths or English exams English.  IQ tests test that part of the intellect which is the most useful but not comprehensive guide to a person’s intelligence. Nor am I suggesting that it should be the only criterion, a certain level of academic attainment also being required.  The answer to the second is simply, IQ is a necessary but not sufficient condition for academic success. If you have an IQ of 1590 you may or may not take a first in maths at Cambridge: if you have an IQ of 80 you will never take such a degree.

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