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Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.
Alan Palmer, Head of Policy and Research at the university think tank Million+, responds to an OECD report that says UK universities are failing to help students with weak literacy and numeracy skills, and funding should be redirected from HE into basic skills training to address the problem.
The OECD report, Building Skills For All: A review Of England, might be taken by some as a thorough look at English universities, but it has the potential to mislead in a number of ways.
The report’s recommendation that ‘unprepared’ university students should be diverted into other provision would deny choices to many of the hundreds of thousands of people who apply to study for a degree each year. These students have expended time and effort considering what is their best option to further their education and increase their chances of a successful career.
Notwithstanding the fact that it bases its recommendations on conclusions drawn from a very small number of university students and graduates, and seems to focus only on full-time undergraduate degrees progressing immediately from secondary to higher education, it also suggests a lack of understanding about the higher education sector in England. It is worth remembering that, in 2014/15, some 37 per cent of full-time undergraduate students were over the age of 21 – indicating that university provides opportunities for people at any stage in life.
The OECD takes a partial view of the university landscape, failing to understand the many ways in which universities support students in their degree courses regardless of their individual prior attainment. Where appropriate, universities will offer students additional support to ensure that they are successful in their studies.
Universities rightly make judgements based on a range of factors when considering applications, including qualifications, prior experience and potential to succeed. Admissions tutors are expert at reviewing the educational ability of the students who apply to study at university, and are adept at seeing past those if they do not have what many – including the OECD report – deem the ‘right’ exam results. This holistic approach has been an essential factor in ensuring that universities have been able to widen participation over the last two decades, in order to provide opportunities to students who would, in less progressive times, have been denied the chance to study for a degree. As recently as July 2015, the UK Prime Minister committed to doubling the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university by 2020.
The break with elitism in our higher education system has been a key factor in the policies of successive governments, and is to be applauded. Modern universities in particular have been at the forefront of providing opportunities for students who do not have traditional entry qualifications such as A levels. They have been the ‘heavy lifters’ in achieving some of the social mobility goals that have been so highly prized, contributing to improved life-chances for huge numbers of individuals to get better jobs, earn more money and be more successful at work.
The graduate premium – meaning that someone with a degree earns up to around £100,000 more on average over the course of their lifetime – demonstrates just one of the benefits of a university education. There are, of course, many others. Students will gain in confidence, develop new networks, be exposed to new and challenging ideas, and will gain a deeper understanding of their subject. For many reasons, studying at university remains one of the best choices a student can make in order to acquire the necessary skills and attributes to be successful in the workplace.
The OECD recommendations would require imposing an identical set of application standards on all universities, and would take away their ability to consider students on their individual merits. They would also prevent students from making their own choices to apply to university study, and would seriously impact on the autonomy of institutions to identify potential.
A more open market, with more choice for individuals, more competition between institutions, and more innovation in degree courses, has been a hallmark of higher education policy in England in recent years. The OECD recommendations would threaten this progress.
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