Just another quick one on student demonstrations. Demonstrations of their own idiocy that is. Some of supposedly the smartest students in the country have been up to some of the stupidest things these last couple of weeks. Students from Oxford University and others from the city took over the Radcliffe Camera. For those of you not familiar with the city of dreaming spires, this does not mean they have nicked Harry Potter's Nikon. No, in an almost unheard of act, students have gone to a library. And stayed for longer than 10 minutes.
Yes, it seems a group of students thought the best way to show they wanted to study was to pitch up without their books, disrupt those there to study and hold a meeting (after they'd had a party, of course). There were a couple of enlightening statements from some of the 6th formers among the demonstrators. One put forth, "we care about the library ... we have a reasoned argument which we are getting across in a mature manner." Yes, I've always felt wearing animal masks and breaking into libraries where university students are studying just reeks of maturity.
Her comrade in arms, undoubtedly accidentally, hit the nail squarely about its head; "nowadays everybody gets a degree, you need one." Therein lies the problem - everybody gets a degree. To quote one of my favourite films, The Incredibles...
Mother: "Everyone's special"
Child: "Which is just another way of saying no-one is"
By encouraging such a large proportion of school leavers enter higher education, we turn a higher achievement into a par one. Not necessarily a bad thing, if all those with a degree really have a higher education - that is one which is worth the time, effort and money to the student in question and John Q Taxpayer picking up most of the bill. The problem is by flooding the job market with applicants with degrees, many of questionable worth, we make not only the applicants with useful ones seem less special and harder to find, but we unrealistically raise the entrance criteria for the rest. Many many jobs in this country now either advertise they require a university education, or will almost certainly favour a university educated applicant where 20 years ago they would not have done.
We see the same in A levels. We apparently have to create A* grades, or top students have to take 6 or 7 A levels. Is this, like the mass influx to university, because everyone is just getting cleverer and cleverer? Of course not, ask the employers of this country and you will generally hear the same story of average numeracy, literacy, and competency waning. Universities are having to do foundation courses in the first year to catch people up who simply didn't know what was previously assumed A level knowledge. Nobody is getting cleverer, we are just dumbing down all of our national educational benchmarks to make it seem that way, and primarily we have Labour to thank. "Education Education Education" - clearly the point we missed was that they clearly meant quantity not quality.
If there is little change in the quality of the output (and certainly not a distinct upward trend), surely the massively expensive (individually and nationally) increase in higher education has proved pointless. Many graduates are doing the same job school leavers were doing 20 years ago. Not only does this mean many of those graduates have probably wasted a lot of time and money (theirs and ours), but it also puts at a disadvantage those who choose to enter the job market at 16 or 18 who are competing for the same places.
University should be accessible to all, but it doesn't mean everyone should take it up. I believe one of the benefits of recent university admissions policies has been a move towards a more meritocratic entrance system. There is still a lot of work to be done on both sides (schools and universities), encouraging non-traditional applicants, and finding the funding to support those from poorer backgrounds (which extends well into the middle classes). However, if Britain wants to remain in the top leagues for further education, the wheat must be separated from the chaff. Britain should be proud that higher education is an elite system - that is one which selects the academically best in the country, the ones with the most potential, and makes them the best in the world. It should never return to the much-disparaged elite system - one which selects on the basis of class, connections or money. We have moved a long way, but the only way to keep university education meaningful in this country is to pare it down, and remember that elitism is something to strive for as long as you are talking about the right one.