Simon Jenkins (Universities are bastions of privilege. That has to change, 14 December) takes aim at almost everything about universities and even manages to claim both that post-16 technical education is poor and that we should stop some young people from going to university. How could closing the only route many young people have to develop high-level skills be considered a positive step that will help them?
How many universities has Jenkins actually visited? Judging from the article he might say “both of them”. But we are a diverse sector. At the University of Portsmouth we embed real-life work experience in most of our courses as well as the latest technology. For example, some of our students experience “virtual field trips”. The division between science and the humanities is also becoming obsolete – as is suggested by our own School of Creative Technologies. Indeed, in a world in which technology is challenging ethical and social norms, we need the humanities more than ever – and I say that as a professional engineer.
Jenkins is enthusiastic about two-year degrees, but the reason universities are focused elsewhere is that there has been little demand for them. Even the government predicts that there will only be about 5,000 by 2022. The real issue that universities are keen to address is greater support for lifelong learning and the need to reverse the worrying collapse in part-time study.
Articles like Jenkins’s help foster an environment in which people feel comfortable believing that all universities are lazy and self-interested – and that we are all the same. This demeans the excellent hard work that my dedicated colleagues engage in every day to support student success.
Universities must be held to account and be open to fair criticism but it should be based on evidence and research, not facile generalisations.
Professor Graham Galbraith
Vice-chancellor, University of Portsmouth
Simon Jenkins is right to point out the wasteful hours that academics currently have to spend on the endless “measuring” of their teaching and research, rather than actually getting on with it. On the other hand, having benefited from a three-year degree (philosophy, politics and economics, Oxford), it seems he now wants to lift the drawbridge, withdraw this opportunity from today’s university students, and consign them to crash courses. At the same time, he takes a swipe at the humanities. I’ve always understood that PPE doesn’t prepare students for any specific career, but am now wondering if it’s good preparation for becoming a philistine.
Professor Jennifer Jenkins
• What might humanities degrees be good for? I suppose the ability to argue properly on the basis of a thorough understanding of a subject and its history doesn’t count for much in a democracy.
Professor Michael Morris
Department of philosophy, University of Sussex
• Simon Jenkins is entitled to his own opinions about universities, but he is not entitled to mangle the facts about them. There was no “wiping out of polytechnics in the 1990s”. Polytechnics were allowed to become universities, giving them more autonomy and putting them on a more level playing field with the universities that already existed.
Professor Trevor Curnow
Richard Adams (Poorer students half as likely to go to university, 14 December) and Simon Jenkins raise important points about privilege and equity in the university sector. Students from deprived neighbourhoods are much less likely to go to university, but the ones who manage it are much more likely to study at a post-1992 institution where little or no research is undertaken in their subjects. For example, data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency for 2015/16 shows that one Russell Group university had only 3.1% of first-year undergraduates from deprived neighbourhoods and attracted total research income of £423,000 per member of teaching staff, whereas a former polytechnic had almost 30% of these students but only earned £6,192 per member of staff. Thus many students are being deprived, in some subjects, of the opportunity to be taught by world experts or to be involved in leading-edge projects. This is certainly no reflection on the quality of the teaching they receive or the quality of research that is being undertaken, but does indicate that they are missing something that more affluent students are getting.
They are being let down by a system introduced in 1992, when the polytechnics became universities. Before then, universities received money for teaching plus funds to enable a basic amount of research to be undertaken – thus allowing them to compete for further funds from research councils, charities etc.
After 1992, the older universities realised that if the former polytechnics were treated the same, there would be less money given out for research to the pre-1992 universities. And so the Research Assessment Exercise was born – a system designed specifically to starve the new universities of research income.
Despite enormous efforts on the part of the newer universities, their research income is tiny in relation to the older, established institutions. It is time that a higher education system fit for the many not the few is established. Research funds from the funding councils should be allocated evenly across institutions, as they were before 1992, so that all students have the same learning opportunities.
• Simon Jenkins perpetuates the “one size fits all” myth surrounding higher education: everyone must have a degree. In the past we had a well-established, and respected, approach involving apprenticeships and study to City and Guilds for craftspeople and ONC/HNC for technicians. Apprenticeships were of four or five years’ duration. Students studied part-time with their employers commonly paying their fees: university was for high-flying academic types. The contribution of engineers qualified by this route is all about us; most of the country’s infrastructure was designed and constructed by them. Employment wasn’t a problem; people left school one day and started work the next. This was the heady “full employment” days of the 1950s. Now we produce graduates with no thought to their employment or career prospects, rather than the well-trained and qualified craftspeople and technicians that industry needs. The trouble is that as a nation we don’t appear to have a national strategy for the regeneration of old and the development of new industries about which to clothe future education and training policy!
• Simon Jenkins says that 77% of university academics are reportedly on the political left, and that this hardly makes universities a uniquely civilising force. I would contend, as an ex-university lecturer, that they are a very important civilising force, particularly for young people, giving them time and space to not be conditioned by rightwing society.