THE GOVERNMENT has set a target of getting 50 per cent of the UK’s young people into higher education; a goal already achieved in Scotland. This pressure to get more students into the system has led to claims that degrees have been “dumbed down”, with more and more students engaged on supposedly ‘softer’ courses such as media studies and forensic science, where the chances of getting a relevant job on graduation appear slim.
Some of the mechanisms for achieving this target might also be suspect. There are still issues surrounding the elevation of the former polytechnics to university status in 1992, creating the so-called ‘post-92 universities’, which includes Paisley, Napier and Abertay, and the fact that a chunk of Scotland’s higher education is being delivered in its further education colleges.
There are real pressures. The post-92 universities have been desperately trying to raise their game and have been reshaping themselves to be more like the research-based universities. However, at a time when the UK’s research-funding councils are increasingly concentrating resources on fewer departments of internationally competitive quality, it is becoming difficult enough for leading Scottish research universities such as Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow and St Andrews to compete with the giants of Oxford, Cambridge, London and Manchester.
The post-92 universities will have very little hope of winning much funding in such a com petition. What they should be doing is concentrating on the teaching of useful knowledge to their students.
In the meantime they have largely abandoned some excellent practices, such as sandwich courses. The polytechnics used to farm their students out for one year of their four-year course to gain work experience.
As a result, their graduates were far more practically experienced and work ready than those of the universities and, although perhaps not as academically gifted as their university peers, were highly prized for their immediate productivity. Now that this distinction has gone, they have less to commend them.
And the abandonment of the sandwich courses has also eliminated the inevitable range of useful contacts which the polytechnics were obliged to make with their local industries — contacts which also encouraged them to remain grounded in the practical realities of the world around them. As a result, their teaching was often more relevant.
And now that half the population gets a degree, shouldn’t we also be thinking about what kind of degrees? Market pressures are forcing universities to offer more and more targeted degrees, but, since most 18-year-olds have little idea of what career they want to follow, there is a strong case that what most students need is a fairly general degree, rather than a highly vocational one. The really bright ones who want to specialise can go on to do one or more postgraduate qualifications.
Perhaps what are really needed are degrees that provide a wider introduction to the world: some literature, culture and communication skills; an introduction to planning and production management; how to undertake scientific investigation; effective report writing.
Just the kind of topics provided by the so- called ‘softer’ courses such as media studies and forensic science.
Maybe the students that have chosen such courses are smarter than we think.
Ian Ritchie is a member of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. These views are his own.