BY ALEXIA JAMES
Ahead of Wednesday’s budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond has talked about up-scaling Britain’s workforce for a tech-driven, post-Brexit future. He has mentioned making Britain “match-fit” to ease the nation’s reliance on immigrants to fill the jobs of the future.
It was John Major when he was Prime Minister who expanded university entrance to the masses; re-branding the old polytechnics into universities and reinventing the term university in Britain – from elite establishment to default destination for school-leavers. It’s to these myriad establishments now that the Chancellor turns in an effort to supply the creative nerds, entrepreneurs and useful workers on whose backs Britain can rise to the great challenges of modernity.
Last year 58% of UK legislation came from Europe – after leaving the EU Britain can gear its economy using British lawmakers and regulation crushers towards a popular model. If Britain is to move away from an immigration-dependent economic model, there must be a sharp increase in mechanisation and productivity in tandem with specific training for key jobs the British economy is crying out for; mechanisation of the likes of fruit-picking and driverless taxis so low-skill immigration stops, alongside nurse and doctor training to supply for the needs of a greying population.
The evidence is that Britain’s universities are not up to speed:
Take nursing. Why is it that Britain’s universities recruited “significantly less” numbers of students to adult nurse training places than was planned in 2016, leaving almost 300 course places empty by the end of the year? Why is it that up to 80,000 British students each year cannot find places on nursing courses while the NHS hires thousands from abroad?
Although it’s impossible to compare Events Management at an ex-polytechnic to Mathematics at Cambridge – they serve different purposes – because of a slew of less-educated school leavers, universities across the board are having to teach material that in the past was taught to undergraduates when they were still in school. There, the amount of “university” level teaching on undergraduate degrees has reduced, or, in some cases, courses have been lengthened to 4 years. Universities have also had to drop “tough” requirements that are now beyond the reasonable expectation of potential paying students.
Dumbing down caused by Major’s expansion of the university label has led to dumbing down in elite courses as well as more practical ones:
A classicist at Oxford could be expected in the 1980s to come up having done 10 years of Latin and 5 of Greek at school. It is possible to be admitted to Oxford today to read classics with no Latin or Greek. Historians at Oxford in the 1980s had to sit university exams commenting on texts of A level standard in two foreign languages after 8 weeks at university. Not today. Most computer scientists in the 1980s could probably have taken a soldering iron and built a computer from electronic components and then written an operating system from scratch. Not today. A computer scientist who can build his own computer has a better understanding of computer science than one who can’t.
It’s not just courses which have been dumbed down and are pointed in the wrong direction for the British economy, the increase in number of universities has led to a watering down of a once limited pool of world experts. Lectureships have been dumbed down too. Some universities at the bottom end of the university league table – where management and business studies courses proliferate – attract less qualified staff who tend to have limited commercial or real world experience and merely quote out of text books. What are students learning on these courses they couldn’t learn in apprenticeships?
Meanwhile, UK’s lecturers do not reflect the British workforce politically. So how can they be trusted to mentor the builders of a strong British economy? The Adam Smith Institute last week pointed out that individuals with left-wing and liberal views are over-represented in British academia – around 50% of the general public supports right-wing or conservative parties, compared to less than 12% of academics. Conservative and right-wing academics are particularly scarce in the social sciences, the humanities and the arts, where dumbed down courses tend to spring from. These lecturers would argue there is no correlation between their political views and the performance of the British economy yet the student swell of work-shy Corbyn supporters demanding a basic income for just being a Briton would say otherwise.
Too many courses have no value in the marketplace: international studies, sociology, non-profit administration, African studies, elementary education, history of art and architectural history. There is no demand for graduates in these fields. However interesting, worthy, compassionate or intellectually stimulating these areas of study are, the brutal, ugly truth is, no one is able to pay a living wage for them, so graduates will be cut adrift the moment they leave the artificial environment of university. At best, graduates in useless fields may find work in the circle of why bother in which the primary form of employment … is to simply re-teach it to future students. These fields have no practical application outside of academia.
Educationalists would argue that university is a time for the young to find themselves. That learning, like travel, broadens the mind.
Britain no longer has that luxury. If Britain is to make the most of Brexit and solve its productivity problems – thus affording the country quality, world-beating universities at all – universities need to change. Fast.
Time for Britain’s universities to point more towards the economy. Bring back the polytechnics and make the top universities elite establishments again, where the brightest and best can challenge and compete. Leave sociology, theology, media and gender studies to suicidal economic models like the French.