The state of third-level education

Warning: If you are a student, and are unable to take criticism, I suggest you may be more comfortable stopping reading now.

The Irish government has declared that it wants half the population to experience third level education; even worse, the British government has declared that it wants half the population to graduate. Given that the distribution of intelligence (simplified to a scalar value such as IQ) is symmetrical, this implies that, at best, the least capable students (in Ireland) will be of average intelligence, as will the least capable graduates (in Britain). This does not take into account the fact that not all of the most intelligent half of the population will be interested in university; therefore, to meet these political targets, it will be necessary to include people of below average intelligence in the student/graduate population.

There will, of course, be other political factors affecting who is pushed into universities, which will further bias the typical characteristics of students/graduates. I'm seriously concerned that in the next ten to fifteen years, universities will be forced to accept mentally handicapped students, and to give them degrees (possibly having assistants take the exam ``with'' (that is, ``for'') them. However, by then, degrees will be effectively meaningless anyway (which I suppose will satisfy the lunatic fringe of the left; perhaps it is the point of this so-called ``widening of access'' (actually a redirection of access)).

Projecting even further (perhaps around 2060?), it might eventually be the case that degrees will be seen as a substitute for ability, rather than a sign of it. Once, people without degrees might have said ``I'm not intelligent enough to go to university'', and other times they might have said ``I'm not rich enough to go to university''. With crazy social engineering schemes, I think we've been getting close to ``I'm not poor enough to go to university''; what I really hope never happens is ``I'm not stupid enough to go to university''. It seems unlikely that will ever happen, but I have a horrible suspicion that it is now possible.

More plausible is that entrance will be made easier from those who have what will be the new privilege -- a background with enough poverty points. I think this may already be happening.

Perhaps we should just give everyone a qualification -- maybe call it the ``Government Certificate of Social Equality'' (GCSE)[1] so everyone can feel ``Equal'' i.e. ``Important''?

I was extremely sceptical when I first read that educational theorists say that the main point of education is to increase self-esteem; but now, I can see what they mean. People can get meaningless degrees, and use them to justify inflating their heads by saying ``I'm a graduate''. Few now are those who actually want to learn something; most just want the slip of paper that they think will help them to get a job (I myself have a PhD and a truck-driving licence; I am under no illusions as to which makes me more employable).


[1] These initials also refer to the standard qualification taken at age 16 in the UK -- General Certificate of Secondary Education.

John C. G. Sturdy
[John's home] Last modified: Fri Jul 06 22:10:17 GMT Daylight Time 2007