AT THIS time of year, most undergraduates are either sitting or preparing for their finals. Yet about one in five faces the prospect of not being able to sit exams or have papers marked because of the pay dispute between the universities and academics.
University teachers have had a very raw deal in recent years. But it is utterly unacceptable that the graduation prospects of so many students should be jeopardised. This is symptomatic of a wider malaise in the universities caused by the Government's misguided policies. It has increased numbers in pursuit of an arbitrary target of 50 per cent of young people going into higher education, pushing universities to admit students who should never be on degree courses. As a result, teaching hours on many courses have fallen and the standard of some degrees has been eroded, while the number of students dropping out has increased.
At the same time, the Government insists on continuing to undermine universities' autonomy, specifically by interfering with their admissions policies. The higher education minister, Bill Rammell, has announced that from 2008, universities must set aside places for those students who achieve better results at A-level than their schools had predicted.
The Government's intention is social engineering - based on the theory that state school teachers are likely to underestimate their pupils' likely results.
Of course students from poorer comprehensives should be able to fulfil their academic potential. But this latest move amounts to meddling with universities' ability to choose the best students.
Ministers have already tried to do so through the Office of Fair Access, threatening the best universities with financial penalties if they do not admit more students from poor backgrounds.
But those students should merit their places.
Ministers meddle with admissions and other aspects of university life at the risk of damaging these institutions irreparably.
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