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    UK universities seek quantity, quality

2006-03-18 07:16

Pity the poor British professor. Once upon a time in the halcyon 1960s, his students were a privileged few, an academic elite drawn from the top 4 per cent of the population. New university arrivals were literate and numerate; crimes against grammar were the exception rather than the rule.

But according to a new comprehensive survey of British university faculty and staff, all that has changed.

"They (incoming freshmen students) don't know how to write essays they just assemble bits from the Internet," commented a disgruntled Oxford tutor. "Even the cream of candidates ... do not necessarily know how to use an apostrophe," added another.

The decline in student competence parallels a dramatic increase in British university and college enrollment over the past decade, spurred in recent years by British Prime Minister Tony Blair's push to get half of all young Britons a university degree.

But as professors and business owners alike decry the quality of university students and graduates, more than a few observers are questioning the wisdom of packing ivory towers with the masses. And students themselves may begin to question whether higher education is overvalued, with tuition rates set to rise steeply next autumn.

British universities and colleges are teeming with almost 2.5 million young adults, a 12-fold increase of 1960s numbers, and up almost 50 per cent over the past decade alone.

But a report published last month for the Association of Graduate Recruiters found that almost half of the top 200 employers of university graduates were unhappy with the calibreer of candidates.

And the recent survey, conducted by Oxford University and Universities & Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), listed a catalogue of complaints about freshmen students which had led in some cases to year-long courses being deferred by a year.

Is high cost an obstacle to study?

Nevertheless, concerns about the state of Britain's university system are deepening this year as its funding faces one of its biggest shake-ups in decades. Following the lead of America, Australia, and New Zealand among others, universities will introduce a new annual 3,000 pounds (US$5,200) tuition fee for students next year nearly triple the current fee.

The charge, brought in by the government to drum up cash for a perennially under-funded sector, is expected to saddle graduates with debts of at least pounds 12,000 pounds (US$21,000), according to the National Union of Students (NUS), making some think twice about whether to study. Already, official figures show the number of university applicants fell this year for the first time in six years, by 3.4 per cent.

"We've said all along that this policy will deter prospective students from going to university," said Julian Nicholds, NUS vice-president for education. "About 13,000 fewer prospective students have applied this year, and that is only attributable to the threat of debt in the future."

For the government, the fall in applicants is slightly awkward. Tony Blair's Labour administration has committed itself to boosting the number of young people in higher education to 50 per cent by 2010. That might prove tricky if teenagers and their parents are deterred by the burgeoning cost of study.

Alison Wolf, an expert at King's College London and author of a book called "Does Education Matter," conceded that the added fees might make students think twice but said the price increase won't would not turn them away.

"When a degree has become as important as ours, all the evidence is that fees will not have an impact because it's still economically worthwhile to get a degree," said Wolf.

Bill Rammell, higher education minister, says said Blair's target of 50 per cent enrollment is was "an economic and social necessity." He also pointed out that by 2012, an estimated 6.8 million graduate jobs will have been created, requiring increasing numbers of university-educated workers.

But Wolf said the government's 50 per cent target is "nuts." "There is no evidence that it is important for economic growth," she contends. "Switzerland is the richest country in Europe and has one of the lowest numbers of graduates."

(China Daily 03/18/2006 page6)


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