The Coalition Government which has placed so much emphasis on reversing the trend towards dumbing down in education must be extremely dismayed by one side-effect of tuition fees in higher education rising to as much as 9,000 a year. It appears that the drop in university course applications which has followed the fee rise has prompted many institutions to lower their entry requirements in order to keep their numbers up. This is especially true of newer universities and former polytechnics.
According to the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS), the number of English applicants to all universities has fallen by 10 % compared with last year. The biggest casualty was the University for the Creative Arts which suffered a massive 29.2% drop from 2011. At the top end of the spectrum, Oxbridge applications were virtually unchanged.
In what looks like a desperate last minute attempt to keep student numbers and revenues up, many institutions have lowered A level grade requirements which basically means that young people are being let in even though they may not have what it takes to ultimately gain a degree. Either that or the quality of degrees would have to fall. This is almost certainly not what the government intended when it moved the goalposts on fees.
Take, for example, the situation at Leeds Metropolitan University where the Telegraph reports entry levels on 97 degree courses, including architecture, law, English literature and history, have been cut to 80 points on the UCAS tariff – the equivalent of only two grade Es, the lowest possible pass. The inevitable result is that the average quality of undergraduates at such universities is destined to decline.
Of course, in the past, such establishments would have responded to such developments by focusing more of their education marketing spend on attracting students from overseas but, here again they have been stymied by the governments tightening up on visa requirements for students from outside of the EU.
That just leaves the EU as a potential source of students to compensate for the shortfall in domestic numbers. This may also prove a problem bearing in mind the economic malaise in the Eurozone and the fact that fees in many EU countries like Belgium are actually lower than in the UK.
Nobody it seems has asked the most relevant question which is what is the optimal number of university places in the UK in the first place. It would appear that the quality of graduates, especially in the disciplines which are in such high demand such as technology and engineering, is now taking centre stage in the debate rather than the total quantity of new undergraduates studying at our universities.