09 Sep 10

Degrees of separation

What is a degree worth not the financial cost to the taxpayer but the perceived value or status of degrees from different institutions?

Is Cambridge "the best university in the world"? How do you define 'best'? The QS rankings assess university research quality, graduate employability, teaching commitment and international commitment. Other listings for UK universities look at student satisfaction etc.

This raises the question, shouldn't a qualification called a 'BA/BSC/LLB' be the same standard wherever you take it?

If a student from a comprehensive school has 3 As at A level and a student from a private school has 3 As at A level in the same subjects from the same examination board, they have the same qualification. Nobody says that the student from the private school has 'better' A levels. In fact, you could argue that the comprehensive pupils has achieved more because they did not have the advantages of smaller classes, enhanced facilities etc.

When it comes to graduates, there is a hierarchy of perceived quality amongst employers, the media, politicians etc Oxbridge, the Russell Group, former polytechnics . During the election campaign, David Cameron and Michael Gove talked about "good" and "top" universities.

What is "good" and why are some "top"? The hierarchy is all about the institution not the individual subjects within them never mind the department look at the name of the university.

Do you need 3 As to get into Cambridge because someone with 3 Bs couldn't cope intellectually, or because of supply and demand? Surely it is the latter there are only so many places and so much demand that the university can set the bar high. Just because a student got 3 Bs doesn't mean they couldn't have graduated with the same class of degree as a student with three As who happened to do slightly better in a particular paper on a particular day or whose parents could afford extra tuition. There are mature students or overseas students who graduate after entering with different or fewer qualifications and there are entrance exams to be coached for and systems to help less privileged students.

If your GP went to Cambridge does that automatically make him/her a 'better' doctor than one who went to another university? Will the engineer be better or the French teacher speak or teach French better?

Of course there are outstanding doctors, engineers and teachers who went to Cambridge and Oxford. Of course there is intellectual excellence at Cambridge and Oxford, world class research and leading academics, but surely the leading attractions of Cambridge and Oxford to students are the prestige, the privilege, the surroundings, the facilities, the connections, the influence, the 'doors' they can open, particularly into the world of politics and the media?

The problem with this is that it creates a self-perpetuating system of institutionalised institutionalism in state institutions the legal system, the civil service, the diplomatic service and, most prominent of all, the dominance of Parliament by an unrepresentative tranche of white public school and Oxbridge-educated men.

Like likes like and this produces a political system where the leaders, or serious contenders for the leadership, of the three main political parties are of a similar age, background and education. If you're Rory Bremner, life becomes very difficult when Cameron/Clegg/Milibands/Balls/Burnham merge into one.

Institutionalised tradition has also resulted in the bizarre and confusing situation where it's a BA (Hons) / BSc (Hons) in most universities (but science BAs at Oxford), which can become an MA (Oxon/Cantab) if you're an Oxbridge graduate) but an MA (Hons) / BSc (Hons) in Scotland.

At the same time, vocational education is under review, student fees look set to rise and we worry that the "UK is slipping down the graduate league" because we are (machine-like) 'producing' fewer graduates than other countries, universities are over-subscribed as students try and escape the economic down-turn, and there is anxiety about whether we need more or fewer graduates, 'dumbing down of standards and 'Mickey mouse' degrees in bizarre and intellectually undemanding subjects. Is there too much research and not enough teaching?

There are methods of comparing degree standards but do they really go far enough?

Is a BA/BSc from Oxbridge or a 'red brick' 'better' than one from a concrete university or a former polytechnic? Which is more important in that value judgement by student, parent, employer or politician intellectual rigour or age of institution?

Could greater use be made of external examiners in assessing degrees? Should lecturers mark papers from other universities rather than their own? Should universities award their own degrees?

In the age of the Internet, podcasts, downloads, webcams, web forums, online 'learning environments', distance learning, instant messaging, virtual reality etc, will all the undergraduate students of the future actually need to be 'at' university much at all (apart from using laboratory/engineering facilities and even they might be virtual one day?)? Could the methods pioneered by the Open University decades ago be extended? Could the perpetual student become a reality, taking a range of vocational and academic courses at different institutions during a lifetime of lifelong learning? Why limit student numbers when anyone with the aptitude and inclination could 'attend' lectures and seminars online?


[16/09/10: More rankings]


BBC: "Professional services firm Deloitte has changed its selection process so recruiters do not know where candidates went to school or university." http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-34384668

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