More by accident than design, student numbers in Britain have doubled over the past two decades. And with the change in status of polytechnics, Britain is following the US towards mass higher education. Few want to reverse this trend. But, says Christopher Price, the expansion has led to bitter conflicts over the purpose and quality of university degreesby Christopher Price / October 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
Published in October 1995 issue of Prospect Magazine
Over the past two decades British universities have evolved from elite to mass institutions. It has been one of the great social transformations of our time. Student numbers have more than doubled-rising from 730,000 in 1975 to 1.5m today. Government commissioners and funding agencies have been given unprecedented powers and since 1992 over 40 polytechnics and colleges have been admitted to the university club against the wishes of its ruling caste. In the 1960s there were just 26 universities compared with more than 80 today.
If you are teaching at a middling redbrick, you may well feel you have been transported from Elysium to a madhouse. Your civilised academic environment has degenerated into unproductive stress. You have twice as many students to look after; you are being harried to produce more and more research, often in the form of trivial articles of which you are slightly ashamed; you vaguely blame the government and are irritated with the polytechnics for colluding with this supermarket process of packing students in and piling them high; but you feel impotent to do anything about it.
On the other hand, if you are a student, especially a “first-time buyer,” the vanguard of your family in staying on beyond school-leaving age, even an ex-polytechnic can be unadulterated heaven. You may be on the bread line much of the time and aware that jobs will be scarce at the end of your course. But the novelty of the experience can give you a new sense of social confidence.
This revolution has, of course, had its price. Universities have had to adhere to government demands for massive efficiency gains. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has pointed to a 47 per cent fall in costs per student over the past 15 years. Whereas in the 1960s governments followed the Robbins Committee recommendations to keep the staff/student ratios intact, in the past five years these have gone up from 10.6:1 to 14:1 in the “old” universities. In some former polytechnics, the ratio is twice as high. This has led the OECD to join critics at home in forecasting a decline in the quality of education, with talk of “worthless degrees.”