Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The decline of the Degree as an academic qualification?

The news that more than half the applicants accepted onto places at British universities do not have A-levels [Sunday Times 11/04/2010] is yet another symptom of a most worrying trend in British education - the erosion of academic excellence. There was a time, not so long ago, when a degree meant something - it marked out a certain level of academic achievement, but no more.

Whilst the headline figure is rather more sensational than the underlying statistics allow - few would question the academic rigour of Scottish Highers and the International Baccalaureate - the blurring of the vocational and academic divide is unwelcome. Don't get me wrong, I support fully that there is a vocational structure of BTEC and National Diploma that runs in parallel to the academic structure of A-levels, IB, Pre-U et al. What I what is a transparent qualification system and not one where vocational courses in "universities" are given the cloak of academic respectability by being awarded the status of a degree.

The nature of vocational qualifications at KS5 is that they do not provide the academic foundation to progress onto academic degrees, and thus it is unsurprising that the vast majority of students accepted onto courses at top universities, such as the Russell Group, are still doing A-level [IB is still accounts for a very small proportion of applicants]. It is thus a travesty that many Maintained sector schools are abandoning academic qualifications at KS5 in order to improve their league table positions. However what is clear is that it falls to Independent Schools and the top universities to be the guardians of the Nation's academic standards.

One unintended consequence of this Government's higher education policy increasing the number of those participating in Higher Education has been to make where one is educated more important than ever before.


  1. Mark, to a certain extent I agree. Degree's form an excellent academic proving ground for students once they moved on from high school. However not all students leaving secondary school (even in the independent sector) have the ability to handle a full academic degree but could still benefit themselves from going to university. Vocational degrees therefore become a much better option path for these students. Even though they will not be getting a full academic degree their experience of going to university and gaining a relevant qualification will mean they will leave as a rounded educated individual ready to contribute to society.

  2. Brian, thanks for this. I have no problem with [young] people having a 'student experience' - my issue is with the nature of qualifications. My primary concern is that there is transparency for employers. I can't see what was wrong with the three tier system that existed previously with Universities, Polytechnics and Colleges of Higher Education. It was transparent and we all knew where we stood. If all must go to 'university' perhaps vocational 'graduates' should be awarded a BVoc, rather than a BA or a BSc.

    Furthermore, I believe that we are in danger of losing our international repuatation for an outstanding University sector, which will happen when the International market finally appreciates the difference in quality of teaching and in status between our 'traditional' [Pre-1990] and our 'new' universities.

  3. The nub of the problem is that we are not sure what higher or post school education is for, ending up in sterile debates about academic versus vocational. Education is for continuous personal development, enabling individuals to develop their intellectual, skill or social capital which they then deploy in their personal or work life. We are locked into a model of personal development that requires a 3 or 4 year residency at a place of learning, often during a period in one's life when developmentally we are not ready to appreciate the intellectual element as much as we do the social. The 3 year university model was relevant when the only way to hear or benefit from the leaders in their field, and to collaborate with others, was to physically be there all the time. Modern digital communication can allow for a far more flexible system, with individuals accessing educational opportunities as they seek to develop their personal, professional or intellectual capital.
    The notion that all pre-1990 universities provide high quality teaching or research, in all of their courses or subjects, is an over-simplification as the university league tables demonstrate.
    Employers now demand, rightly, far more than the academic who has been grinding away in a library for three years (another crude simplification) - they want individuals who are creative, resilient, can work independently and collaboratively, have curiosity, flexibility, or can retrain or be able to acquire new skills as the demands change. Actually many of the qualities that I see demanded in 'vocational courses'.
    Its time to move the debate away from academic v vocational, traditional v new to one of “what is my potential”, “how can I develop it”, “what gives me social, economic or personal capital”.
    Then of course we have the next question…… how do we pay for it?