In my last Letter from London I discussed the continuing and accelerating decline in the financing and quality of tertiary education in the UK, and promised to examine some of the fundamental principles on which our higher education system is based.
For a start, there is nothing sacrosanct about the three-year university course. The private University of Buckingham, for example, has compressed the traditional three-year degree programme into two years by reducing universities’ ridiculously long holidays. My daughter, who studied English literature there, had excellent tutors with Oxbridge doctorates and found her assignments and the stringency of evaluation to be of Oxbridge standard. Admittedly this isn’t true of all subjects, but it shows what can be done if institutions are prepared to jettison time-honoured traditions. It’s also useful to remember that students coming back from War service in 1945 completed short-term degree courses, which didn’t prevent them from doing well and pursuing brilliant careers.
Likewise the assumption that higher education should start at age 18 is questionable. For some young people, signing up for short-term courses appropriate to their aptitudes and ambitions with professional colleges or apprenticeships in business firms would be a more advisable option, leaving university till later. There’s also the option of pursuing a degree programme with the Open University or taking other online courses which cater to almost every interest.
It is also absurd that entry into so many professions is restricted to university graduates. Why should nursing, for example, need a university degree, except at highest specialist levels? Surely it would be better taught on the job, as it used to be, with frequent in-service short courses arranged by hospitals. Even law doesn’t need to be a postgrad programme. My wife, who read classics at Cambridge in the 1960s, went on to study the practical course of the Law Society’s College of Law, where graduates studied for three years and non-graduates for five, while serving apprenticeships with law firms. This didn’t prevent her becoming the youngest ever lady partner of a city of London law firm (no small achievement in days when it was a heavily male-dominated profession). Jurisprudence is, of course, a proper university subject, but the practice of law is another matter altogether.
The recent fascinating EW essays of Prof. Li Liyang from Beijing indicate how much we can learn from the Chinese in their relentless drive for excellence. Despite their enormous undergraduate population the universal gaokao university entrance examination is uncompromisingly tough, to the extent that only 500,000 of the 9.5 million takers enter pre-eminent universities into which colossal resources are poured. And China’s latest plan for a super-category of Double First Class institutions should give us pause for thought about the wishy-washy egalitarian nonsense that has become so depressingly fashionable in the decadent West.
(Dr. Peter Greenhalgh is a Cambridge classical scholar and former professor at Cape Town University)