16 July 2019

Universities are destroying the value of their own degrees

By Charlotte Gill

Is there anything else British universities can do to prove the worthlessness of a degree?

It appears not, as this week it was revealed that grades have been artificially inflated across the country’s academic institutions, with almost three in ten students awarded first-class degrees last summer.

What was once a qualification reserved for the brightest of the bright is now anyone’s game, with the number of students achieving a top degree in England almost doubling since 2011.

This sudden improvement in grades is not down to a sudden upsurge in students taking cod liver oil, or the extraordinary abilities of teachers, but the covert – perhaps unconscious – attempts of universities to justify their now astronomical tuition fees. After these were trebled in 2012, it became imperative for institutions to show that they provided value for money, and, shockingly, administrators found means to do this. According to the Times, one of the ways in which this was achieved was through algorithms that were changed to become more generous. The result is a grossly exaggerated estimate of our young people’s cognitive abilities.

In response to the findings, Education Secretary Damian Hinds has warned that “[a]rtificial grade inflation is not in anyone’s interests”. Too right!

The travesty of all this is that it will cast doubt on previous generations’ academic performance, as well as the whole integrity of British degrees, which have long been regarded as some of the best in the world. International employers will increasingly be wary that they cannot distinguish the brainy from the braindead, thanks to our crude, poorly monitored academic standards. And who could blame foreign students if they look elsewhere for a more rigorous system?

Rampant grade inflation is just the latest example of the car crash of British higher education, which has produced a wave of heavily indebted, overqualified, yet unoccupied, graduates, 28% of whom find themselves in jobs that do not need degrees.

This perfect storm has been brewing ever since Tony Blair decided out of nowhere that half of school leavers should go on to higher education – a disastrous target that led to a surplus of graduates and pointless courses. Gone is much of the cache that was once attached to a university education, which is now treated in some quarters as roughly on a par with getting a summer job at Wetherspoons.

When the financial crash happened in 2008, large numbers of people my age (I graduated in 2010) discovered the hard way that our degrees had become more or less redundant. It would have been a sensible move for the government to change its educational approach, with more emphasis on teaching entrepreneurial and/or business skills at school.

They could also have additionally matched degrees better to the demands of the economy, pushing for more computer science and engineering graduates.  But despite the clear challenges facing the British economy, things continued on the same trajectory, with too many young people still opting for courses that have poor employment prospects.

Indeed, only 15 of the UK’s 132 institutions produce graduates whose average starting salary is above the £25,000 repayment threshold for those enormous tuition fees – a figure that should have the Treasury up in arms.

The solution is clear. The government needs to break the endless cycle of masses of young people going to university, but no MP has been frank enough about the situation. Partly because of ignorance as to how far the value of a degree has plummeted, but also because society treats these institutions as something of a creche for young adults, who can stave off the real world while they study.

The grade inflation incident is just one example of a system that is crumbling and needs an epic overhaul; perhaps a makeover to match Michael Gove’s extremely welcome revolution in the way children are assessed at school. We could learn a lot from the Americans, whose GPA system is a far more sophisticated measure of aptitude, and where students have the opportunity to test out different subjects before majoring in a particular discipline.

We need fewer courses, fewer students and better funding for our top talent. But we cannot continue as things stand. Young people deserve better than universities that bluff academic results. Until then, many of them would be well advised to give the whole sorry charade a miss.

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Charlotte Gill is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the MoS and the Daily Telegraph