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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Universities for the Rich or the Talented or Everybody?

University expansion over the past few decades is a bit like the expansion of disability benefits. It solves one problem and creates another.

Disability benefits massaged down the unemployment figures but shunted some perfectly employable people into a class of permanently unemployable.

University expansion created a class of students with no interest in studying. At worst, it did no more than raise the school leaving age and though the pupils were leaving with degrees those degrees were not much better than no qualifications at all.

University courses are very dissimilar but we pretend they are all alike and all suitable for the average 18 year old. It makes counting and costing easier if everyone is doing the same thing. The system is monolithic when it should be much more diverse.

There should be fewer standardised university places and more vocational and part-time provision. The core of university provision should be in mathematics, the hard sciences, engineering, technology, medicine, languages and it should probably be free at point of use. Entry should be very competitive and very meritocratic.

A great deal of provision in the arts and social sciences could be offered on a part-time basis and charged for as a consumer good. It need not be credentialised. The Internet makes it increasingly easy to study at home in subjects which do not require access to laboratories and such like.

Vocational provision ought to involve companies paying apprentices and interns to learn, not the other way around. Maybe there should be an option to do two or three years' National Service, military or otherwise.

Difficult areas include things like music which require both dedication and equipment. Music could be put with core university provision or provided within privately endowed conservatoires enjoying charitable status against a commitment to meritocratic enrolment.

Basic education is a right but three years at university allegedly doing Media Studies probably isn't. We need doctors and we may need PR men, but the latter don't need universities. The Bullingdon Club exists because lots of rich young men go to Oxford but not for the education it may offer.

And some 18 year olds would do much better going to work and then, when they know what they want from life, going back to study. It's hardly rocket science to figure that this might work better for lots of young people

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