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Saturday, 7 April 2012

Universities and A-Level

The British educational system, especially at the level of secondary schools, is widely recognised to be failing a large proportion of the rising generation. Far too many young people are entering rapidly-expanded new universities to find their courses undemanding and their teachers overstretched [with staff-student ratios little different from those in schools; sometimes more adverse]: their justified complaint is that they were coached into taking simplified final school exams which enable them to enter those courses, without the class receiving any satisfactory counselling about the options that would be available on graduation. Three or four years after school these people present themselves as graduates to employers who consider their degree useless and their standards of literacy, numeracy and verbal communication to be abysmal and their assiduity in work non-existent. Graduates of 2015will typically leave university with debts well in excess of £20,000, which diminishes their hope of ever being able to find the deposit to buy their own home.

Of course there are exceptions: many tens of thousands of graduates emerge literate, numerate and competent  in valid sciences and well-tested arts subjects, with their degrees awarded by sound institutions; but most employers report that from their perspective such graduates are the minority.

For the school leavers who leave earlier that the university-destined cohort there are limited opportunities for genuine trainee or apprenticeship opportunity. Very many of them have even lower standards of literacy and numeracy than do the graduates. They have not been educated to respect work, or their country and its vaunted democracy, or the law of the land. They have been brought up to feel entitled to be treated with respect, regardless of their own behaviour; and they expect financial benefits as a right which exempts them from any question of obligation to contribute to the economy.

 In these circumstances it is amazing how many families are able to bring up their children with standards of decency and social obligation, who are eager to make their own way in the world and who recognise their need to generate income honestly. Despite the educational system, families are able to overcome the state schools system and discuss among themselves the career options for the children. Families scrape together the money for visits to careers fairs and universities' open days so that rational choices can be made, and support students on a clear understanding that they will work hard with a view to a valid degree and a remunerative career.

Part of making good choices is being able to select school-leaving examinations that point in a useful way; but it would be more useful if schoolchildren were able to be guided in their schools through an examination that is set by good universities and accepted by them [and by eventual employers] as proof of suitability for study at the higher level.

I am so old that I remember that my Advanced Level examinations were set by the Northern Universities Joint Matriculation Board ['the JMB']. Other parts of the country took London, Oxford, Cambridge and Durham University pre-university examinations. The universities managed these examinations carefully and with great attention. Senior academics served as examiners, administrators and even went into schools to conduct oral examinations and inspections. The system worked: so, in the way of the British educational system, it had to be destroyed. A mixture of uppety school teachers and commercial interests persuaded government that the excellent system should be replaced, and it was, and standards steadily declined. After thirty-odd years of the charade, the universities are suggesting that they should recapture this field: and to most people [including, apparently, some of the university representatives who are promoting the idea] this is a novel concept, rather than the possible restoration of something that served its purpose efficiently and economically. Such is the way in which the political class has bent to the demands of interest groups, to the detriment of the entire nation.

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