FEfocus Editorial - Forget quality control - just deliver more

1st July 2011 at 01:00

"More will mean worse": Kingsley Amis's famous reaction to the expansion of universities was a counsel of despair from an old reactionary. But he had a bit of a point.

Even if you do not accept that at least some of the students taking degrees today are on lower-quality courses that are less likely to improve their life chances, there is one way in which HE is demonstrably worse: its cost.

From the days when you would be paid to go to university - the kids would never believe you if you told them now - we head towards 2012, when most will be paying around #163;9,000 a year. So many more people are taking degrees that the remnants of public funding cannot reach them all.

The HE white paper is an attempt to patch over these cracks (page 3). Colleges will no doubt welcome the prospect of an extra 20,000 places as a reward for them resisting the urge to charge #163;9,000 a year, but it is a drop in the ocean.

It also contradicts the whole premise. Those 20,000 places distort the market, in that those students will not be free to choose more expensive - and perhaps more valuable - courses if they prefer. But they also show up the market failure: competition is not working to drive down prices and drive up efficiency. Most universities are clustering around the maximum price in a sort of Government-sponsored cartel.

These reflections prompt a further question: why do we not hear the same "more means worse" concerns about the expansion of apprenticeships? FE minister John Hayes says he wants 500,000 apprenticeship starts a year by the time of the next general election (page 2).

Yet he seems unconcerned that expansion might put quality at risk. And nobody in Government seems at all worried about overshooting the target for recruitment this financial year by 50,000.

When Mr Hayes announced the beginning of his apprenticeships surge, an extra 50,000 starts was reckoned to cost #163;150 million and the money was made available. And yet here we are with double that, conjured out of the air.

It is nice to exceed your targets, but not your budgets. Things being what they are, the Government cannot afford to overspend on apprenticeships. This leaves it with only a few options: put the squeeze on quality.

Many "new" apprentices are already in work and have just had a training role added. Many were transferred over from the previous government's Train to Gain scheme. But these have the same problem that Train to Gain had, and which prompted the new administration to scrap it: the deadweight costs of funding training that employers would have paid for themselves.

One explanation for why the problems of expansion are not much discussed is that apprenticeships are viewed by many outside of FE as a consolation prize for the unacademic, and so their quality is not an issue.

But surely this is not the opinion of the current Government, whose members have spoken so often about the virtues of practical learning and the life-changing benefits of apprenticeships.

So someone at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills must have discovered a magic formula, whereby the numbers of apprentices can be multiplied without incurring extra costs or damaging quality. If so, perhaps he could tell his colleagues working on HE? They seem like they could do with that sort of help right now.

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