The government likes to give the impression that it’s on the side of the students when it comes to the matter of mediocre universities doling out poor-quality degrees that don’t advance career prospects. A few years ago the government started demanding that university departments display the statistics on graduate employment from each degree in that department, even though no such stats exist in most cases. And now it has created the ‘Office for Students’, which is supposed to help students get a better deal from universities. Its website says it wants to ensure that ‘students have access to high quality teaching and learning – whatever, wherever and however they are studying’, and that ‘students’ interests are protected, and that they receive value for money’.
Nobody seems to have noted that the government acting as though it is the students’ champion is hypocrisy of the first order. Why? Because it is government policies that lie behind most of the problems with the universities. Let me list some of the main issues:
1. It is the government demanding that 50 per cent of all young people go to university.
2. The government is one of the main drivers (although university administrators share some of the blame) of the drop in staff-student ratios, because it is not funding the huge increase in student places it has created. Many departments have seen student numbers double or triple in recent years, while staff numbers have stayed the same or increased only slightly.
3. It is the government giving money on credit to anyone who gets into a university, on extremely good terms.
4. It is the government making universities concentrate on research with its REFs (Research Excellence Frameworks) and RAEs (Research Assessment Exercises) and attached money, which means academics are judged more than ever by their research output, not their teaching.
5. At the same time it is the government that is pushing student evaluation of teaching as the sole measure of teaching quality, even though it is known that this has no bearing on the production of well-educated and employable graduates. (If anything, it leads to poorer results in those spheres, as lecturers spoon-feed their students and inflate their marks to get good evaluations.)
6. The government is happy to fund dozens of universities that it knows are third-rate, and which have poor-quality students who will not benefit from going there (or to any university).
7. It is the government that has capped fees at £9,000, which means a real market cannot be created.
So the government’s attempt to get down with the kids against the universities is like its criticising HMRC for taxing people. What is happening in the university sphere is the inevitable result of government policy. The government is not Robin Hood here. It is Prince John.