Be a Voice: Reforming Higher Education in the UK

By Blog Writer Lucinda Obank

Data gathered from The Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that the number of first-class and second-class degrees awarded from British Universities has soared. In the 2016/17 academic year, 26% of students graduating from British universities were leaving with a first-class degree, an 8% increase from 2013. Surrey University handed out firsts to a staggering 41% of their students last year and Oxford 33%. In the last decade, Wolverhampton University increased the number of firsts awarded by five times and The University of Liverpool doubled their proportion.

A similar trend has also been seen in the increasing number of unconditional offers over the years. UCAS released statistics showing that the number of unconditional offers made to students who are 18 years of age has risen from 2,985 in 2013 to 67,915 in 2018. According to information given to The Sunday Times, 11 universities including Durham, Liverpool and Oxford admit to not failing a single student in their finals last year. This phenomenon is problematic because deliberate grade inflation and drastic surges in unconditional offers may undermine the entire higher education system in the UK. Moreover, the steep rise in first class and second-class results is devaluing degrees and rendering them meaningless, whilst undermining the brightest students who cannot be differentiated by employers in the graduate market.

With easier access to top grades and a university place, the incentive for students to work as hard has been made futile. However, as confidence in degree classification and academic standards begin to dwindle, universities will become increasingly meaningless institutions that will potentially drive students away altogether. Additionally, universities are no longer prioritizing learning and education, but are behaving as businesses more concerned with profit, turning its students into customers. With surmounting pressure and competition to attract students and secure their fees, universities are favourably adjusting the grading systems and dishing out thousands of unconditionals with hopes of ranking higher in competitive League Tables and National Student Surveys.

How did it get to this point?

Since universities have more control over their revenue, finances, and spending due to the introduction of tuition fees under the Labour Party in 1998, their concerns have shifted to raising money, hence the fight to compete with each other for students.

Additionally, under the Labour government in 1992, more than 30 polytechnics took on the title of ‘university’. This was part of Tony Blair’s plan to get the number of people attending university to 50%. Andrew Adonis, Labour’s former Education Minister, at the time later admitted to the House of Lords that this was a mistake and suggested the removal of university status from what he called ‘lower performing former polytechnics’. In other words, granting university status to polytechnics was deeply problematic. Although a nice concept, this is not the original purpose for which universities were established. With so many universities today offering a plethora of courses, including the ‘Jedi’ Degree (yes, you read that correctly) at Belfast’s Queens University and ‘David Beckham’ Studies at Staffordshire University, degree inflation is at an all-time high.

So what can be done?

The destruction of British polytechnics which offered practical, vocational qualifications has left a technical skills shortage in many industries. This threatens our economic growth so much so, that there have been social movements to revive them. One study conducted by STEM researchers showed that current technical skill shortages are costing businesses in the sector a total of £1.5 billion per year. This is often spent on temporary staffing, recruitment, training costs and inflated salaries with fears growing as Brexit looms .

Reintroducing polytechnic institutions will undoubtedly boost the economy – the skills learnt here are the backbone to many industries as well as the economy. Efforts should be made to regard these institutions offering technical vocational qualifications in a more positive light, rather than presuming that all of those who attend these institutions lack the capability to study at traditional universities.  Moreover, reviving polytechnics, that are employer-oriented and combine academic knowledge with practical application at lower tuition fees, will help to reduce the UK’s shortage in graduates with technical skills.

Viable alternative routes, other than university, that offer real careers must be provided as this will protect the credibility of British universities over time. If universities no longer compete with each other for students’ money and the state increases their support, grading systems and unconditional offers would revert to statistics seen in 2013.

Perhaps the government could offer more financial support for degrees that contribute to reducing the technical skills shortages which, in turn, affect our economy. Therefore, enabling more students to study relevant courses without fear of massive debt through scholarships and financial assistance would be a better use of funding. 

Finally, universities should be reserved for those passionate about pure academic study or those who seek to enter professions such as medicine and law, and it shouldn’t cost them a lifetime to pay loans back. Universities weren’t established for that. The Labour Party’s drive to boost the number of students at university to 50% has driven down standards instead and it is time for higher educational reform. The government must help in providing more alternative options other than university, such as apprenticeships and vocational qualifications with incentives for young people. As a result, universities will be forced to respond to changes in student attitudes by improving their own standards.

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Image: Higher Education @Wikimedia Commons