One of the things that has happened over the past 15 years or so is that the number of people going to university has risen very quickly. This is not just in the UK, but worldwide. As I’ve written elsewhere, this is part of a longer trend that combines two chief factors: more and more people finishing school and wanting to go to university, and the recent encouragement by governments buying into the idea that having higher numbers of graduates makes you internationally competitive. I’ve blogged about some of the downsides to this growth, such as how a larger student body is often funded (through tuition fees and loans) and the labour market becoming overcrowded. There are some serious pluses, too, such as having a greater proportion of society with critical thinking skills, and people who might previously have been excluded from higher education having more opportunities to go. Whether they actually go – and if so, where – is another matter.
There is also a sense in some of the literature, media, and discussions over the water cooler, that this widening access has given rise to another problem – that higher education is ‘dumbing down’. The accusation is that we’re expanding entry to degrees beyond the number of people who are ‘university material’. In order to make sure these people graduate, we’re bringing the water to the horse, not the horse to the water, by making degrees easier for these ‘less suitable’ students. (We do, after all, want their fee money and success/drop-out rates are calculated into some rankings.) This in turn means that degrees, particularly in some subjects and/or at less selective universities, aren’t as good, as academically rigorous, and overall this makes the sector look weaker as a whole. How well does this claim stand up?
First of all, it’s been very well documented that people from poorer backgrounds tend to do less well at school, so saying that these people simply aren’t of the right calibre is inaccurate. What we’re actually seeing here strikes me as a class issue – the dumbing down accusation is just outright snobbery. Higher education is no longer the exclusive preserve of the middle classes, and this means that their dominance of the professions is threatened. What happens when you have a greater number of graduates is known as ‘credential inflation’: degrees are not as rare as they used to be and as such their relative prestige falls. However, we can still see that the most academically selective universities are historically/by default also socially selective as they recruit largely from the middle classes. Rankings ‘prove’ that some universities are better than others, but as I’ve explored before, rankings are not necessarily valid measures of quality. Even so, employers rely on them and/or have long-standing connections with particular universities. This means that the more affluent students, attending higher status institutions (and with the money/connections to get internships) are more likely to do well on the job market. Working class kids coming through Oxbridge just don’t don’t have the same opportunities as their middle class Oxbridge peers, and so it continues, ‘down’ through the system. The middle class advantage is still there, but it is less clear than before and in some ways it’s under threat.
The second issue relates to the school system itself. In addition to the fact that disadvantaged kids have greater barriers to educational success, the way that teaching is changing may make the transition to university more difficult for the majority of students. There is perhaps always a sense of how school leavers were better in the ‘good old days’, but there might be an element of truth in this. Not brighter, of course, but perhaps more independent as learners. Because the school system has become heavily monitored, with schools being judged and compared (through league tables) on the basis of their results, teachers are driven to coach their students very carefully to do well in exams. This might not be good pedagogical practice, but it does get good results on paper – and is vital to schools’ continued survival. We see this in the literature on school policy, and I have a number of friends who are teachers – they have confirmed how this feeds into the classroom. What this means for universities is that first year students can be very dependent at the outset and find the relative lack of guidance and support in the university system quite unsettling. I’ve seen this first hand, and wondered if it was linked to the fact that some of my students don’t have great grades and so lack confidence, while others came though vocational rather than academic routes and might have been exposed to a more hands-on/applied learning and teaching culture. Even if we suspend our sociological hats for a minute and assume that grades accurately reflect ability, are students with better grades more independent? Having spoken to others who teach at universities that only really recruit the highest performing students, they report the same kinds of things. Their students are coming in very well equipped at memorisation and regurgitation, but not at finding and analysing information for themselves or managing their own timetables.
So, what do we do about this? Students may, through no fault of their own, be coming into university with less well-developed self-study skills than before. They are products of an education system which is being forced to school them in a way that looks effective from one perspective but might be counterproductive from another. I see my job with the first year students, almost more importantly than teaching the content, as slowly taking the stabilisers off their educational bikes so they can ride without them – and, increasingly, without me. This is not about dumbing down, but acknowledging where they’ve come from, signposting where we expect them to go, and supporting them in their intellectual development. Anyone can learn to find and assess information by themselves, synthesise it into well-structured essays or reports, and then start to conduct their own data gathering and analysis. Students nowadays may just be a little further from that in some ways than they used to be. Maybe.