The best ed­u­ca­tion?

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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.

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