For regular readers of my blog, students I work with and those lucky half dozen who bought my book, this will be a familiar refrain so excuse me whilst I fulminate, for new readers – you’ll likely know this anyway but such is the nature of the edu-echo-chamber. So… once more UK universities are back in the news for all the wrong reasons. Reasons I had hitherto suspected but now someone with facts, stats and the wherewithal to do more than grouse from the sidelines has weighed in with their tuppence worth. And what a tuppence it is, shiny and irrefutable.
No less an educational doyen than Andreas Schleicher, the education director for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) now for those of you who don’t know, Andreas is a German statistician, a kind of Billy Beane for education, and for those of you don’t know who Billy Beane is, Brad Pitt in Moneyball. That is to say when Andreas or Billy say something it is empirical, not emotional, they look at hard data to establish facts, in that way it is entirely devoid of arguments or sentiment. When Andreas delivered their annual report at yesterday’s launch in London it painted a fairly grim picture in many respects, of the value offered by UK universities and by extension their graduates’ prior schooling. The figures suggest that tens of thousands of students are graduating from British universities with nary a clue how to write good and count beyond their fingers. Indeed England has the highest number of graduates working in school leaver level jobs out of any developed country in the world, many of whom, it is suggested, because they lack the literacy and numeracy skills required to perform graduate level roles.
In his implacable Teutonic way Schleicher used the word ‘astounding’ to characterise why universities were recruiting students, let alone allowing them to graduate, when they lacked the basic skills required to thrive in the job market or indeed at university itself. This quite rightly calls into question what kind of quality assurance universities can offer . I’ve written extensively about grade inflation (https://edducan.com/2018/06/21/the-great-grade-garage-sale-is-back-in-the-news-again-1st-class-degrees-easier-to-get-than-a-3rd/) and this last exam season has seen a lot of hand-wringing over unconditional offers both of which underpin these concerns. The simple truth is that with the exodus of overseas students and professors, the uptick in new providers and Russell groupers clambering over one another to lower UCAS tariffs, a perfect storm of supply far out stripping demand has been allowed to develop. Combine that with an institutional zeal to encourage every student to go to university almost regardless of aptitude or intellect and we have the equivalent of zombie institutions, they have the appearance and bearing of the universities of old but when examined you can see them listing to one side, the lights are out in their eyes, they are controlled by cynical trusts, answerable to those in charge of augmenting their endowments or simply feathering their nests and grabbing up the second highest tuition costs in the world.
A whopping 28% of grads were working in unskilled jobs that required nothing additional to the average school leader, a stat that sees us trailing all but Japan at 29% in a list of nearly 30 countries. This is not due to an absence of graduate jobs but rather the consequence of the employers themselves performing skills tests and finding them coming up wanting. ‘They are labelled over-qualified but they’re not overskilled.’ Pretty damning but he goes on to really double down, ‘they don’t have the maths and English needed for a graduate job. The lack of numeracy skills is pretty basic, I’m not talking about advanced analysis. You ask yourself how someone could leave the school system with these skills, let alone getting into and even out of university.’ Pow, that’s quite the gut punch right? Obviously schools aren’t and cannot be all things to all people and it’s unfair that this should be yet one more thing foisted into their already overburdened laps, however, the reckless way they are encouraging students into thousands of pounds of unmerited debt in pursuit of degrees that materially will not better service their future needs to be curbed. It may not look good on their destination stats but frankly the students who don’t go will thank them as much as those that do, if we get back to more sensible numbers of entrants then symbiosis will be restored, the value and worth of the degree will justify its costs once more as unis are strong-armed back towards excellence rather than populism. The unpaid graduate debt will not be footed by the tax payer as those coming through will land in well paid graduate worthy jobs; as it stands around 40-45% of loans remain unpaid, an eye watering amount of debt that has been accrued in pursuit of a toppling folly.
Incredibly despite a recent report by National Numeracy that showed only a quarter of students out of 700 social science undergrads from nine universities could demonstrate the basic level of numeracy needed to operate in daily life and the workplace, even though almost all had passed GCSE maths, the DfE tried to claim a victory. Of the OECD report Damian Hinds said, ‘as the report recognises, we have high levels of young people in education or employment, the financial gains from going to university outstrip the cost and people are more likely to continue in learning throughout their lives.’ A statement so dripping in either blind optimism or gross mendacity, and I’m not sure which, that it has finally allowed me to understand why they think they can make Brexit a success.