9 August 2009


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 9 August 2009

On the face of it, higher education should count as one of this government’s success stories. Something like 45 per cent of young Brits now go to university – more than double the proportion in the early 1990s – and British universities attract more students from abroad than ever before. Over the past few years there has been serious investment in the infrastructure of higher education. Just about every university has impressive new buildings and revamped lecture theatres and offices.

But all is not rosy in the college quad. The government’s long-standing target of 50 per cent participation in HE among 18-30-year-olds by 2010 is certain to be missed, and, after more than a decade of expanding budgets, universities now face a period of painful belt-tightening. Just as worrying, there are persistent concerns, most recently expressed by Alan Milburn’s report on social mobility and by a House of Commons select committee report published last weekend, that (a) the expansion of higher education has not really opened it up to working-class students; and (b) a lot of students are not getting a good deal.

I have to declare an interest here: for the past nine years I have been a journalism lecturer at City University in London, and for the past five I have been course director and admissions tutor on its biggest journalism undergraduate programme. If City isn’t doing its bit to widen participation and is letting down the young people we recruit, I’m probably at least part of the problem.

Not, I hasten to add, that I think City or I are doing badly on either score. Like any other admissions tutor, I select students on merit – but that’s not just a matter of A-level grades. Anyone predicted to get three As is a shoo-in as long as his or her personal statement is good. But I also jump at the chance of taking on people who have been running football and music fanzines online since they were 14, and I am always open to applications from people who for whatever reason missed out on A-levels in their teens. My students are an extraordinary social and ethnic mix.

And if the students turn up to classes and do the work, they acquire all the skills they need to work as journalists in the real world – the same skills they would get by doing a postgraduate journalism course – along with a solid academic grounding in politics and history (at very least). True, we had a few years when the kit we were using was not quite up to scratch, but that’s all in the past. And OK, I accept that sometimes work is returned a bit late. But on the whole I think we do a decent job.

Of course, this is just me blowing my own trumpet. Where, you might legitimately ask, is the evidence? And that is where the problems start, because there isn’t a great deal beyond the real-life stories of former students with successful careers.

Sure, there has been a lot of research on class and university admissions showing that working-class applicants are less likely to get in than middle-class ones – but none of it is more specific than university by university.

As for the quality of the “student experience”, as we now call it, all anyone has is extraordinarily unreliable. Over the past few years, the annual National Student Survey, an online tick-box-and-comment questionnaire, has become the touchstone of the universities’ “quality assurance” regime. Undergraduates in their final year are encouraged to pass judgment on their years at university – and university managers, my own included, take the results very seriously.

The fatal flaw of the NSS is that it treats students as mere consumers when in fact they are much more than that. Yes, they pay a lot of money to go to university, and they have a right not to be fobbed off with poor teaching, inadequate libraries and overcrowded classrooms. But no one has an automatic right to a good 2.1: you have to work for it. The NSS ignores this rather crucial fact, allowing the lazy and disappointed full scope for anonymous whingeing and blame-shifting. One side-effect is that some universities – not my own – have opted for the quiet life, allowing the numbers of students getting top grades to creep up year by year.

So what’s the answer? The Commons select committee calls for an intrusive inspection regime for universities along the lines of Ofsted, but it’s difficult to see how it could work, simply because most university courses are too specialist to be judged by a generalist inspector. A far better option would be to beef up the role of the traditional external examiner. It might be at odds with the notion of the student as consumer, but in the end the best possible judge of the quality of an academic programme is someone who teaches something similar elsewhere.