Phil’s University Challenge

August 3, 2009

I am back at the University treadmill, only to find crisis brewing. Pardon gharssly mixed metaphors. Nobody should cook things on a treadmill.  There are probably Health and Safety Regulations which prevent this.

Anyhoo. I was awoken by Phil Willis on my radio, explaining how University degree classifications are a farce. There are more firsts every year, and nobody can prove that a 2:1 from University X is the same as University Y, or that it means the same in Physics as it is does in Sports Science. Yes folks, this is the same Phil Willis, chair of the IUSS Select Committee, that we love so much for roasting STFC.

This a very interesting but scary debate. Where it seems to be heading is that Universities cannot be allowed to regulate themselves and set their own exams. How can the Government pay us £15bn per year and not want to take charge ?   Its hard to deny the central point, that degree standards are not uniform in space or time. But this situation has been created by Government policy, not by the Universities, over many years.

(1) Distinction between Universities and Polys removed. Their degrees must therefore be the same.

(2) Percentage of population going through University must go up, from 5-10% to 30-50%. We will pretend that all these people are equally capable of high level achievement, so all degrees awarded must be the same value. Oh and standards must be maintained.

(3) Students must pay for their education. Therefore they are customers. Therefore they must get what they belive they have paid for. A piece of paper with an unambiguous meaning.

I believe, as the Government has done for many years, that it is a good thing for a large fraction of the population to undergo tertiary education. I also agree that such a mass education system should be of uniform and reliable quality and calibration. But we still need something like the old University system to produce the 5% of specialists as well.

Going back to step (1), I find myself suprised at the way history has unfolded. When the “binary dividing line” was removed between Polys and Unis, many folks secretly assumed that the real point was to allow it to float upwards…


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