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Graduated shades of grey

During the holidays, I read the daily paper more carefully than usual. Stumbling on one aspect of summer journalism which I usually ignore, the university graduations, prompted some musing on higher education.

The Brown government wanted 50 per cent of young people in higher education. The economic climate and the change of government may challenge that: I couldn't help wonder at both its usefulness and its consequences. Society's skills requirements have changed. IT is a new priority for universities. Other skills, such as nursing and physiotherapy, previously developed on the job or in further education, are now taught by universities. University student numbers have, inevitably, risen.

The CBI employers' organisation is urging an even greater emphasis on vocational courses. Increased fees and the abandonment of the traditional four-year Scottish degree are seen as possible means of financing the extra numbers.

A wider social spread now participate in higher education (an excellent thing), but it is also available to a wider range of academic abilities. Entry to university may require 250 UCAS points for Oxford and Cambridge or 88 for London South Bank, 233 for St Andrews or 137 for Abertay. The differences are substantial and there are consequences: 84 per cent of St Andrews graduates achieve firsts or upper seconds, only 2 per cent less than Cambridge; the equivalent for Abertay is 62 per cent.

There are also valid questions about the products of our universities. School Leaders Scotland recently criticised the literacy standards of newly-qualified graduate teachers. The assumption that a university graduate, in whatever discipline, would possess cultural awareness and sound literacy and numeracy skills seems no longer valid, although responsibility may lie with our schools as much as the universities.

There are other criteria by which aspiring students may judge universities, including the drop-out rate. St Andrews is best in Scotland, with only 2.1 per cent dropping out. By this criteria, Abertay does very well, with a drop-out rate of 7.6 per cent, about a quarter the rate of the University of the Highlands and Islands. As a teacher advising young people making UCAS applications, this is one of the factors I stress.

We now assume that university is the proper place for half the population, a questionable proposition. We have created universities whose degrees confer unequal marks of distinction. Universities produce graduates with specialist, vocational skills and knowledge but limited cultural awareness and literacy skills.

The present economic climate will impact seriously on universities. That might be no bad thing.

Schools also have serious issues about how well they prepare young people for higher education. Do we give sound advice, including, in some cases, advice that university is not the best venue for some? Are we failing to teach the core literacy skills, in primaries and in secondaries, on which higher-order literacy skills rest? Have we turned ourselves into examination factories and abandoned the development of broad cultural awareness? Have we achieved a proper balance between academic and vocational learning? Do we swim with the tide of a restless consumerist generation and relegate perseverance as an outdated virtue?

Difficult questions, but it's high time they were discussed openly and honestly.

Alex Wood is head of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.

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