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Yet any suggestion that the new universities should be called something else to capture those different missions usually attracts howls of anger. More mildly, John Raftery, Vice-Chancellor of London Metropolitan University, describes the problem as how to avoid “tearing off the epaulettes”.

But this is not about titles — it is about what institutions do. And it is clear that we have a gaping hole between research-led, academic universities and FE colleges. A British version of the German Fachhochscule or the American community colleges is needed to fill the big intermediate skills gap. They should be able to offer two-year courses with a practical rather than academic focus, run by teachers not academics. If students on sub-degree technical courses develop a more academic aptitude they should be able to switch to a full degree course in the same or a different institution.

To sidestep the status-ridden debate about titles we could just call all institutions providing any kind of post-school education a university or a college, and all, including FE colleges, could perhaps come under the umbrella of a fully-fledged university.

Willetts is always worth reading and this book is full of wise and witty observations (my favourite is that many Americans thought that the 1944 Butler Education Act was for training butlers) and challenges to conventional thinking on, for example, the focusing of education spending on the early years. But here he is too bent on self-justification and over-eagerly attributes many desirable trends that would have happened anyway to university expansion. Of course, our great universities are a national asset that, despite hand-wringing about visa-restrictions and counting students as immigrants, attract a rising number of international students (though internationalisation can go too far).

Yet expansion has amplified value divides, weakened our middling skill base and probably done little for what Christopher Lasch called “the general competence of society” (about 20 per cent of pupils still leave school more or less illiterate and innumerate). People in the bottom half of society do not need “rescuing” by spending three years at a new university. They need a better basic academic school education than most of them are getting now, and then a choice of good non-academic vocational/technical education or a university. (Ideally both would offer a residential and stay-at-home option.)

Mass higher education has reinforced the general trend towards elevating cognitive ability as the gold standard of human esteem. The trend may be correcting itself as dissatisfaction with some of the lower-status universities grows. Men who graduated from the 23 lowest-performing British universities went on to earn less than those who did not go at all, according to Barnaby Lenon’s forthcoming book Other People’s Children.

Moreover, the combination of AI replacing a range of middling cognitive jobs, an ageing society, and a reduction in immigration after Brexit, might force us to place more value again on many essential caring and manual/technical occupations.

Over-expansion of the university sector has damaged the status balance in society. Willetts is right that three years away at university discovering oneself and the world can be a positive life-changing experience (it was for me) but it isn’t for everyone and it is not the only route to a happy and achieved life or a thriving economy.
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Peter Smith
April 7th, 2018
12:04 PM
All so very true; I left school at 15 (just before my 16ht birthday) and have done what I call a 'self-directed apprenticeship'. I achieved Chartered Engineer status some years ago without a degree, but that might have been impossible if I had not moved to the USA (I lived there for 22 years) where most companies cared little about degrees after a few years of work, and far more about whether you can actually do the job. The problem I see is that it is assumed a degree is required for electrical engineering (a part of what I do). I started as a junior mechanic (Royal Navy) and have taken the opportunities life has afforded me. Perhaps that is not the path for many, but for myself it has been a lot of fun - roads less travelled perhaps. It is certainly time to re-evaluate just what the university system is actually supposed to be doing.

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