Thursday, September 9, 2010...9:00 am

Are undergraduate drop-outs voting with their feet?

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This week’s HE news is that graduation rates have slumped, pushing us to 15th place in the OECD rankings. It’s a disaster that is threatening our economic recovery, warn university vice-chancellors (no special interest there, then) and university unions (likewise).
It’s an odd counterpoint to the summer’s news that unemployment among graduates has risen a hefty 25% over 12 months, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute.
Higher education interest groups say the solution to the first problem is, of course, “more investment” in higher education. But that probably won’t solve the second problem.
Why are more students failing to graduate? Could it be that they are starting to understand that a degree in itself is not a passport to success and are voting with their feet? Or does the rankings race mean we are focused too much on numbers – so we push students into a university environment they are not suited to and so drop out of?
Either way, throwing money into universities without thinking carefully what we are trying to achieve is probably not the answer.


  • To solve a problem, folks first needs to agree what the problem is.
    The OECD survey is a poor problem definer. In its limited frame of reference, if the entire UK population tomorrow graduated summa cum laude from a university course in lavatory cleaning, the UK would instantly shoot to the top of the survey results, making us the best educated nation on earth.
    Which would clearly be a nonsense.
    This ‘problem’ is all about what HE is for. In the OECD measure, it’s all about getting as many people as possible to complete degrees from any kind of HE institution on any topic.
    If that’s a reliable guide to a nation’s prosperity, now or in the future, I’m Father Christmas.

  • Dear Santa – please may I have a 2:1, so I can get a really good job…

  • Well, quite.
    I don’t know when it was that HE became all about ‘getting a good job’. Round about the time universities were first targeted by social engineers for ‘elitism’, I’m guessing. HE’s problems (and ours) date to when the HE/earning power nexus was formally identified as a phenomenon and a social evil.
    True, the rich and powerful always sent their offspring to university. But they didn’t do so in the 18th or 19th centuries to guarantee their kids ‘a good job’. They didn’t need to: a good living and/or a good income were guaranteed already.
    No, they sent them to university because it was socially unacceptable to be ill-educated. And because in those elitist, unfair and unequal times, it was regarded as a man’s (not a woman’s, obv, because they weren’t allowed) duty to educate himself and to spend at least a few years of his life being a professional, full-time learner.
    I’m delighted we dumped the sexism and nepotism and inequality. But we also dumped something valuable along the way: a love of education and learning for its own sake.

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