How real is the concern over degree standards?

Guardian story: Take concern over degree standards seriously, universities warned

Whilst MPs will always find ways to give VCs and universities a hard time, they can rarely be accused of getting too close to the serious issues. But where is the evidence for this huge public concern about degree standards? And are the responses the right way forward in the context of what is inevitably going to be a reduction in public funding for universities?

Universities must take public concern over degree standards seriously if they want to make the case for more investment by the taxpayer, the new head of the higher education funding body warned yesterday. Speaking on his first day in the job, Sir Alan Langlands, the former chief executive of the NHS, took vice-chancellors to task when they complained about being “roasted” by MPs during an inquiry into qualifications at British universities and the quality of the student experience.

“Sometimes select committees catch the public mood. There is real public interest which needs to be addressed. If there is some scepticism we have to be able to take that head on and deal with it,” said Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce).

But is there really a big public concern about standards? There just doesn’t seem to be much evidence to support the notion that there is widespread scepticism about degrees.

Prof Rick Trainor, vice-chancellor of King’s College London and president of Universities UK, said they had been given a roasting by the committee and that universities and Hefce should act together against a “sustained campaign of scepticism” by MPs and others.

Baroness Blackstone, vice-chancellor of Greenwich, said there had been some grade inflation in numbers of firsts and 2:1 degrees due to league tables and the sooner universities moved away from this crude assessment the better.

Whilst there is a debate to be had about the replacement of degree classification (and attempts are still being made to promote the alternatives), accepting the proposition that the proportion of good degrees has risen because of league table driven grade inflation doesn’t seem to be a helpful starting point in countering the sceptics.

Prof Geoff Crossick, warden of Goldsmiths London, said the maintenance of standards was fragile because of lack of resources. “Quality will be under threat in coming years and we need to be able to resist reductions in funding,” he said.

But funding has gone up, including as a result of variable fees, and to argue that there is fragility in standards maintenance and that quality is threatened does seem somewhat disingenuous in an economic climate where there is only one direction we can expect public funding for universities to be heading. It is far from clear how this is going to be resisted by the sector given the funding gains and the pay increases in recent years.

On the prospects of future funding, Langlands warned: “I have been involved in government spending negotiations for 15 years and I have known a less propitious time for arguing for public investment.”

(This must be a misquote, surely.) Not propitious times at all. And, whilst there might not be a big public debate about degrees at the moment, linking funding demands to the maintenance of standards and quality may end up bringing one about. That really wouldn’t be terribly helpful.

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VCs protest: what do we want? Higher fees!

When do we want them? Er, as soon as possible really but it is recognised that there might be the tiny problem of electoral arithmetic to contend with, so bad luck everyone.

The BBC has done a survey of a selection of VCs on their fee preferences:

Many universities in England and Wales want a sharp increase in tuition fees, a survey by BBC News has concluded. Two thirds of vice chancellors, speaking anonymously, said they needed to raise fees, suggesting levels of between £4,000 and £20,000 per year. More than half of university heads want students to pay at least £5,000 per year or for there to be no upper limit.

Higher Education Minister David Lammy said there was an “important debate to be had”. The National Union of Students has warned of debts of £32,000 for students if fees rise to £7,000 per year.

There is an important debate to be had on this issue. Universities do need substantially more money to deliver (a) the teaching and learning students deserve and (b) the world leading science base expected by government. Even before the global recession things were looking a bit dodgy on the long term funding front. Now universities are likely to be so far down the pecking order you might expect the Treasury to be arguing for topping up Fred Goodwin’s pension before investing more in higher education. So where else is the money going to come from?