The university places surplus

Many students opening their brown envelopes on Thursday will find inside confirmation that they are one of the 70,000 hopefuls who will not be getting a place at university this year. David Lammy, Labour’s former Universities Minister, calls it the alienation “of an entire generation”. On the other hand, it may turn out we’ve done them a favour.

Governments and ministers have for years fed schoolchildren a disastrous lie – that you should go to university. They have been told that if you are clever, and if you want to succeed, then a degree is something you unquestionably must have in your pocket. An ambitious generation who annually outwit their markschemes and astound their parents (“exams must be getting easier”) take the bait, log into UCAS, and sign themselves up for £25,000 debt before they’ve ever earned a pay cheque or paid a month’s rent.

There are two lies they bite on: that university must be for them, and that university will get them a job. The first is easy to understand. Labour introduced, well before the secondary school careers of today’s students, a target of getting 50% of pupils into a university. Last year 49.8% of students got five A*-C grade GCSEs including English and Maths. If you’re an aspirational pupil in that group you’re going to believe that you should be going to university. Sadly that’s not necessarily the case. Most people don’t want to spend three years studying French by themselves in a library with six hours contact time a week. But universities, keen to cash in on the government’s previously open cheque, have brought out a whole host of more exciting degrees to entice in the masses.

The problem is not with these courses being studied, but with wedging them into a totally unsuitable system. Essentially interactive subjects are not suited to the lonely library life of the academic hermit, and this is why the facade so easily crumbles. Students realise it’s not for them, and they drop out. Almost 9% of those beginning courses in 2007 had left by the end of the academic year. The ones that leave are likely to be those with the funds or contacts to leave the security of a student loan, and pay off a year’s fees despite nothing to show for them. Those that stay are the ones caught up in the second lie, that university will find them a job.

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What school leavers need is not an increase in university places, expanding in scope and volume whenever the graduate job market gets harsher. What they need is an escape route from a centralised system that files them in one of two drawers: ‘graduate’ or ‘non-graduate’; and attaches to those the labels ‘clever’ and ‘stupid’. They need an end to policy that reduces them to a target and a beginning of the chance to be a person. Essential for this is viable vocational alternatives, so that taking a different qualification or course is no longer sneered at by their ‘better educated’ peers. Vocational should also be treated to mean more than just manual work. Business, finance, administration – they’re all vocations and should all be able to be studied practically, not just academically.

We should not deny that our universities face problems. We just must not pretend that they are easy ones. The number of people who cannot find a place in clearing this week is about the number we would normally expect to drop out within a year. To claim that our universities have too few places would be misguided. The truth is they have too many.

UPDATE: Figures out today show 19% of undergraduates completing their degrees were unsatisfied with the experience. (18/08/2010)