You would think that earning a good degree from a high-ranking university and displaying an excellent skill set would be enough to secure a good job — that’s no longer the case
When we think of Conservative politics in the latter half of the twentieth century the immediate thought is Thatcherism. Her privatisation of almost all national business, closure of the mines and declaration of war on Argentina were controversial elements of her government to say the least. Her successor however, John Major, managed to escape much criticism due to this previous government’s controversial record. It is Major’s legacy though, particularly in his reforms on the higher education system, which will be the focus of this article.
Serving as the bridge between Thatcherism and New Labour, Major ruled with far less of an ideological prowess than the ‘Iron Lady’. In the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 however, the Prime Minister made changes that have impacted and will continue to impact the entire notion of what universities and degrees exist to achieve.
Major’s Act created what became known as 35 ‘new universities’, a policy that changed some of Britain’s polytechnic colleges into higher status institutions. What had existed before were red brick and traditional establishments with higher entry requirements and a certain mark of notoriety being attributed to them. What you have now, although these institutions are still in existence, are a parallel set of lower-performing and more easily accessible universities, which offer the same degree programs.
Not only were polytechnic colleges already performing the duties of metropolitan universities just as well as these ‘post-1992’ establishments, but you also now have a haunting social taboo in the education sector about this divide. With professions now refusing to define a job applicant’s difference by whether they attended a higher tier institution or not, it does force the question of the impact that this system of metropolitan universities is having on achieving a degree. Teachers are now also encouraged to blur the divide between traditional and met universities to ensure that students don’t feel discouraged. In my opinion however, this actually stops students from accessing their potential because they think ‘oh well, I’ve always got x if y fails’.
This is not an elitist view by any means. My own university is a one that prides itself on admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds and holds up its wide student catalogue as an achievement. It is more an expression of the argument that university always stood as a higher bracket of education for students who were capable of getting there. Now, students on the brink of failure in their A-Levels can enrol onto a degree program and become a part of the social taboo of those ‘not discussing’ a difference in quality.
Don’t get me wrong, I think metropolitans excel in certain degree areas, perhaps better than traditional universities. Northumbria’s Business School for example is nationally held up to esteem and Liverpool John Moores has an extremely well-credited nursing department. The point remains however, they are all programs that would have been achievable at polytechnic colleges, and would have certainly existed without the £9,000 price tag dangling unattractively from their advertisements.
Traditionally, universities were something to be proud of, if you were successful in achieving a place it was both rare and a major accomplishment. Now, it is almost expected from students, at least in my experience, that university should be the standard path to a career. This has not only negatively impacted the education process pre-18, but has also led to job applicants who attended traditional establishments losing out on jobs from people with a degree from lower establishments. Of course, I am aware however that this omits a variety of factors. Many job processes now depend on your ability to interview well, and the level of social skills you can display in a pressurised situation — something that you simply cannot learn in a university lecture theatre.
To put this into context of current-day politics, Labour and Conservatives are unsurprisingly split in their viewpoints. Cameron at the recent Conservative Conference in Manchester rolled out plans to deter post-18 students away from universities, not only by proposing increasing higher-held university fees to £12,000, but also by encouraging the route of apprenticeships and college courses. On the flip side, although Miliband’s modest suggestion was the decreasing of student fees by £3,000 per year, Corbyn has become an all-out student martyr, which I’m sure is by no means an attempt to win them over for the 2020 election … Corbyn’s plan is to scrap tuition fees entirely and bring back the maintenance grant, something that not only would cost £10.1bn, but also means students would have no financial deterrence from universities. This would lead in theory to a monumental boost in student numbers, and deepening of the already perilous depths of the post-graduate job pool.
Major’s changes in 1992 were, and still are, extremely significant. He changed the meaning of universities, of degrees, and what they stand for in terms of progression into a career. Again, this is overlooked commonly because of his predecessor’s controversial legacy. When we are commenting, however, at post-grads of Oxford and Cambridge going to work back at ‘the library in their school for a few years’, and the increasing shortage of jobs for well-skilled professionals, there can be no doubt on who we should place the blame.