Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Learning Curve

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Learning Curve

Article excerpt

IT IS NO COINCIDENCE that news of a steep rise in the dropout rate in universities emerged on the same day as a report revealing attempts by NHS managers to fiddle the figures on hospital waiting lists. In each case the problem arises from public institutions attempting to meet centrally defined targets while handicapped by a chronic shortage of resources. It is a paradox of New Labour that in health and education, a party which prides itself on its modernised thinking and readiness to abandon socialist doctrine should continue to have recourse to the methods of the command economy. The Government's stipulation that Britain should aim to have 50 per cent of its pupils in higher education was always highly questionable, and had no obvious educational, cultural or economic basis. Already the perils of packing in students in order to meet centrally determined figures are reflected in the soaring dropout rate.

It is not just a matter of student support, or unwillingness to incur debt, but of the overstretched facilities in some higher educational institutions and the value of their degrees. Our dropout figures compare well with other countries, but that is mainly because countries such as France have burdened themselves with a poorly resourced system: the essential objective is to avoid following their example. The Government's recent lifting of the cap on student recruitment in individual universities could help to introduce a much-needed element of competition, enabling more students to enroll at successful institutions and avoid performing ones. But we shall still be stuck with the underlying problem of an over-ambitious programme of expansion in higher education, based on underperforming schools.

Our universities must not become centres of remedial education for students with inadequate attainments. It is right to attempt to attract more students from low income families who lack formal educational qualifications, but vital that such students possess the necessary intellectual potential. A fully-fledged policy of positive discrimination will damage not only the universities, whose standards must decline under the burden, but also individual students, who may simply not be suited to higher education and end up dropping out. …

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