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Consider the ancient spires of Oxford and the University of Bedfordshire, a new university. In both cases it is the relevant university departments that select from the students who have chosen that course, rather than the students selecting the university, as in much of the US and continental Europe. In both cases what is offered is a three-year general academic degree usually focused on analytical skills. The course will be taught by academics who see research as their primary interest. And the students will, in the main, leave home to board at the university (though a smaller proportion at Bedfordshire), again unlike most students in Europe and the US, who go to college in their home town. 

Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science in the Coalition government, sees no problem with the “massification” of elite higher education. Indeed, he regards the residential system and the focus on research as strengths of our system.

Much of the book is a defence of his own recent reforms, including the increase in tuition fees to £9,000 a year and the removal of any limit on the number of students who can go to university. He is particularly persuasive on the former, pointing out that it has broadened participation (20 per cent of people from the poorest backgrounds now go compared with 11 per cent in 2006), brought more funds into universities and saved public money — the balance of public to private funding of higher education has switched from 60/40 to 40/60.

A system of no upfront payment and a non-commercial repayment arrangement after a student starts to earn above £21,000 a year is a creative and broadly fair system though it can be, and possibly will be, adjusted at the margin with the focus on reducing the swingeing interest rate currently charged.

Willetts is less convincing when taking a broader look at the economic and non-economic benefits to both the individual graduate and society from the expansion. Graduates earn more and are more employable. They are also healthier, less likely to commit crime, more trusting and more likely to volunteer and vote.

He cites research that claims this is more than just a selection effect. But surely most of the effect arises from the fact that a large proportion of people that choose to go to university are already bright, affluent and well-behaved. In Germany, where fewer people go to university and more go to other forms of post-school education, are there noticeably fewer such people?

Willetts is a friend of the low-tariff (meaning easier to get into) new universities, many of which were polytechnics until 1992. Universities are way behind schools in measuring “value-added”, but it is probably the case that the lower-status universities are doing more for their students than Russell Group ones which take most of the already well-educated students from private and top state schools.

About 40 per cent of all students are doing vocational courses such as medicine, nursing, pharmacy, law, surveying and business studies, and Willetts is rightly excited by the industry link-ups at places like Aston and Sunderland. He even has a good word to say about media studies courses.
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Peter Smith
April 7th, 2018
12:04 PM
All so very true; I left school at 15 (just before my 16ht birthday) and have done what I call a 'self-directed apprenticeship'. I achieved Chartered Engineer status some years ago without a degree, but that might have been impossible if I had not moved to the USA (I lived there for 22 years) where most companies cared little about degrees after a few years of work, and far more about whether you can actually do the job. The problem I see is that it is assumed a degree is required for electrical engineering (a part of what I do). I started as a junior mechanic (Royal Navy) and have taken the opportunities life has afforded me. Perhaps that is not the path for many, but for myself it has been a lot of fun - roads less travelled perhaps. It is certainly time to re-evaluate just what the university system is actually supposed to be doing.

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