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Britain: Large cohort generates quality anxiety

“More will mean worse,” wrote author Kingsley Amis in 1961, contemplating plans to expand university education. His prediction has been tested past anything he could have imagined, as that era’s new universities were joined by ex-polytechnics in the 1990s, and the proportion of youngsters who go on to university has risen from less than 10 percent to almost 40 percent now. The 430,000 new undergraduates who headed off to freshers weeks this autumn are Britain’s largest university cohort ever.

Similar rumblings have continued since Amis’ jeremiad. With less government money (in real terms) per student than in his day, universities have to pack them in and keep them in to balance the books. Paul Buckland, an archaeology professor at Bournemouth University, resigned when administrators overruled his failing grades for ten students (in August he won a case for “constructive dismissal”). In June a barnstorming lecture by Geoffrey Alderman, of Buckingham University, gained wide attention with its claims of impotent external examiners, widespread unpunished plagiarism and a “grotesque bidding game” in which universities dished out good grades in order to claw their way up league tables.

Alderman’s complaints opened the floodgates; disgruntled academics spilt their hearts out in internet chat rooms — and to the committee of MPs charged with overseeing universities. So worried is the committee that it is considering an inquiry into standards. Some think it should have turned a blind eye. “We have been told that simply by looking at this question we are bringing this country’s universities into disrepute,” says Phil Willis, its chairman.

Some of this is standard fare: American universities suffer periodic spasms over grade inflation; plagiarism is on the rise wherever students can use the internet. But British universities are particularly vulnerable to loss of reputation. Only America, five times its size, has more foreign students and with fees for local students capped, Britain’s universities break even only by charging overseas students what the market will bear. Figures published on September 16 showed that for most, this source of income is now more valuable than government funding for research.

In trying to maintain standards, English universities face a particular problem (the Scottish system is different). Their standard short, specialised degrees suit only the well prepared: in three years there is no time for a ruthless weeding-out after one year, as is common elsewhere in Europe, or for a broad education before choosing a major subject, as in America. But the A-levels which used to provide that preparation have changed into a school-leaving qualification, and universities have had to nip and tuck what they teach accordingly.

A system predicated on achievement, not potential, is under further pressure from a government that wants universities to admit more children from state schools, many of which offer sketchy academic education.

Therefore universities may have to take radical measures: Cambridge is considering a foundation year for students who show potential but are ill prepared. A review of the government-imposed cap on tuition fees, due next year, may also help. The current limit of £3,300 (Rs.2.76 lakh) which nearly all universities are up against, is so low that many lose money on teaching.

So all is not lost — yet — in the battle for quality in what will be on offer to future freshers. But “more” could still mean “worse” if the jobs market is flooded with graduates. The Confederation of British Industry worries this is the case: on September 17 it launched a task-force to consider not only whether the wrong sort of graduates are being turned out, but also whether supply risks outstripping demand.

This is likely to be what concerns students most. A survey released on September 11 by Sodexo, an education-outsourcing company, found that for more than half of them the prime reason for pursuing a degree was to improve job or salary prospects, or that they had to for their chosen profession. Only 9 percent wanted to increase their knowledge of an area of interest. “It’s a big risk, going to university, much bigger than it used to be,” says Robin Naylor of Warwick University. “But if you study something you like, then even if you don’t earn so much, there is a better chance you’ll work in a field you love.”

(Excerpted and adapted from  The Economist)