NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 7, 2008

To maintain their historically high standards, English universities face a particular problem: their standard short, specialized degrees suit only the well prepared.  In three years, there is no time for a ruthless weeding-out, as is common elsewhere in Europe, or for a broad education before choosing a major, as in America.  With more than 430,000 new undergraduates this fall, universities have had to nip and tuck what they teach to balance their books, says the Economist.

The universities are under further pressure from the government which wants to admit more children from state schools -- which offer a sketchy academic education.  Absent better state secondary schools, universities are considering radical measures, says the Economist:

  • Cambridge is considering a foundation year for students who show potential but are ill prepared.
  • A review of the government-imposed cap on tuition fees, due next year, may also help.
  • The current limit of £3,300 (about U.S. $5,926) is so low that many lose money on teaching; a higher cap would allow greater differentiation, thus helping to remove another flaw: the pretence that a degree of a particular class from one university is equivalent to the same class from any other.

But all is not lost in the battle for quality.  However, "more" could still mean "worse" if the jobs market is flooded with graduates.  According to a recent survey, for more than half of graduates the prime reason for pursuing a degree was to improve job or salary prospects; only 9 percent wanted to increase their knowledge of an area of interest.

Moreover, the university you attend now matters greatly, and the penalty for not having a degree is high.  But the penalty for getting the wrong degree is higher.  In 2006, a third of graduates were working in jobs that did not require a degree, and they earned a third less than those who were using their degrees, says the Economist.

Source: Editorial, "Making it Pay," The Economist, September 20, 2008.

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