The best education?
Many young people work exceptionally hard to obtain their A-level and GCSE grades and those who did well in the results announced recently should be proud of themselves. But their future paths may not be as clear cut as they once were.
This year, a decline in the number of 18 year olds and the removal of a cap on the number of university places in England has led to what has been described as a ‘buyers market’. Increasing numbers are choosing clearing as the way to secure a place on the course at the university they see as offering the best value for money. Last week’s GCSE grades will also be muddying the waters in many families.
Could it be time to question whether the system is delivering the correct product for Britain’s needs? Part of the problem, paradoxically, is that parts of it are very good indeed. Like Olympic gold medals, we have far more top universities than our size should merit—four out of the top 10 universities in international rankings. Many of the most successful people in British life went to one of them.
This has encouraged the idea that it’s socially desirable for as many young people as possible to have access to an education of this kind, but it’s dishonest of politicians to pretend that this is possible without massive investment in teaching staff. The reason that Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College and UCL rank so highly is the amount of contact time they offer between students and academics. This can’t be replicated further down the league table. Besides, this sort of education doesn’t suit everyone. Tony Blair thought that 50% of school leavers should go to university. Why?
When few universities existed in Britain, students often had no choice but to study in a different part of the country from where they lived. On the Continent, where university attendance was more common, the university would often be in the student’s own town. He or she could stay at home. Although far more young people go to university in Britain than was the case a generation ago, the model is still to find one far away from the parental home—indeed, distance is, in many cases, part of the attraction. This is in itself a cause of difficulty, as the student who has left home often makes the break for good.
Admittedly, many parents wouldn’t want Britain to go down Italy’s path, where some children don’t move out until they’re middleaged, if then. However, this British peculiarity exacerbates the housing crisis, creating demand from young people some years before it might otherwise occur. At the same time, these university leavers may, if they’ve studied arts courses, find that their qualifications, acquired at the expense of a great deal of student debt, don’t equip them for the stellar job they were expecting; an employer may not find them of much use at all.
Our obsession with the old-style universities isn’t just antiquated, it’s distorted the entire system, with school years being made a misery for many pupils by an unremitting emphasis on exams. The strength of our education system used to be that it produced originals—people who could think laterally. We’ve sacrificed this for a preoccupation with tick-box paper qualifications, which don’t suit all students and don’t demonstrate practical aptitudes to employers.
Although would-be university students may find the exorbitant cost a deterrent, ironically, they may ultimately find that, by not going to university, they find themselves in a better position than their lateto-the-workplace, debt-laden peers.