It has recently been disclosed that some universities, and I use that term advisedly, are making unconditional offers to hapless school leavers in return for a minimum investment of £30,000 over three years and the promise of a worthless degree at the end of it.  Unconditional offers mean that the leavers are guaranteed a place regardless of entry results such as ‘A’ levels or any other test of their academic prowess.

One cannot get away from the nagging suspicion that these unconditional offers are being made by ‘new’ universities which wouldn’t otherwise be able to meet their quotas or indeed justify their very existence without them, but whilst we cling to the absurd mantra that everybody is entitled to a place at university regardless of ability, these third-rate institutions will find a market of sorts.  It is also instructive to note that of the top ten universities making more than half of their offers unconditional last year, all were ‘new’.  The biggest offender was the University of Suffolk, which made a staggering 83.8% of its offers unconditional.

But it gets worse. More first class degrees are being handed out like confetti at a wedding than ever before, and last year, across the board, more firsts were awarded than 2:2s and thirds combined.  It risks devaluing the entire ethos of higher education, and as W.S. Gilbert wrote: “When everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody.”  Put another way, it’s dumbing down for dummies, and universities are not supposed to be pandering to dummies.

According to Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Office for Students, “it is fundamentally important that degrees hold their value over time.  There has been a significant and unexplained grade inflation since 2010, which risks undermining public confidence in our higher education system.”

The other obvious problem besides public confidence is the cruel misconception that a first class degree from Bogbrush University is going to put the graduate on the fast track to fame and fortune and instant riches, when the reality is quite different.  Employers are unlikely to be impressed, finding such a degree worthless, and who can blame them?  So many applicants cannot even spell properly, and have never heard of ‘curriculum vitae’ let alone what it means.

Surely it’s time and enough for the government to understand that higher education is fundamentally different from comprehensive education, where one size fits all, and where ability and creative thinking are discouraged.  A good university education is supposed to be the pursuit of academic excellence and not intellectual mediocrity, and is supposed to encourage original thought and not rote learning.

Some of you will remember the days when universities were the preserve of academia or the vocations, and technical colleges offered real prospects in the workplace.  They replaced, or at least supplemented, the apprenticeship scheme, where real crafts were learned and jobs readily available to skilled workers across the board, and it didn’t take £10,000 a year to acquire them.

I remember, not so long ago, when it was bruited abroad that plumbers were earning £70,000 pa, there was a stampede amongst lawyers to sign up.  An income such as this was riches beyond their wildest dreams to those dependent on legal aid.

Time for a complete rethink if our higher education system is not to become the laughing-stock of our competitors.

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David is an English barrister, writer, public performer and keynote speaker. His full profile can be found on his website.

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