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Education: the tyranny of numbers

The take-off in post-school education has consequences beyond the control of governments, explains Alison Wolf. Among them is the flight from vocational qualifications

By Alison Wolf   December 1996

In 1881, the entire student body of Somerville college, Oxford numbered 18. At Corpus Christi college, down the road, a total of 15 freshmen matriculated and started their degrees that year. Today these colleges enroll over 300 students each; yet they remain the intimate, elite corner of university life. British universities these days conjure up images of vast examination halls, packed lecture theatres and overcrowded libraries catering for 1.5m students.

In that same year of 1881 the mining workforce numbered millions. In the London docks, thousands were hired by the day to handle goods by hand. This industrial working class…

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