An unhealthy truth?

Hattie / 28th Sep, 2016 / News

As I have written many times, Uni’s not for me is absolutely not about being anti university. But, in the same way that not all apprenticeships or alternatives to university are of the quality they should be, it’s pretty obvious that not all universities are up to scratch. The very term, university, covers a wide spectrum – from the elite to the laughable.

Anyway, it’s that time of year when thousands of young people head off to the start of their big adventure in higher education. But, given the recent media coverage about universities’ many failings, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the institutions – and for the people who go there in good faith, not unreasonably expecting a decent education and some life chances at the end of it.

Last week, Universities and Science Minister, Jo Johnson weighed in, giving British universities a good kicking. While proud that Britain’s universities are ranked only behind the USA for “quality”, his dismay was directed at the levels of “lamentable” teaching that seems to be a widespread part of British universities.


Universities are ranked largely on the quality of their research. But, Johnson points out, this is only part of the story. Student satisfaction levels are dropping, a third of students don’t believe their course offers value for money, over a quarter believe feedback from tutors is poor and too many students end up regretting their choice of course. While more disadvantaged students now attend university, there is still a wide gap between socio economic groups.

So, the government is setting up something called the Teaching Excellence Framework which aims to recognise and reward good teaching in higher education. Quality of teaching will, for the first time, be as important as research. Other quality measures include graduate employment records, drop out rates and analysis by expert panels. Only those with a good score can raise their fees.

Johnson also reminds us that the government is having a look at how universities can extend their influence to schools. In Birmingham for example, the university has opened a new free school for secondary pupils and sixth formers.


Of course, it’s a good thing that these issues of quality are being raised – but isn’t what’s happening as a result of too much capacity in the university system – and too many people being encouraged to go?

Quality will always suffer when volume becomes the primary motivation. You just have to look at the NHS to see what happens when a system becomes overwhelmed. In fact, the parallels are remarkable.

The NHS is a victim of its own success – it’s keeping people alive for longer and demand for its services is rising every year particularly from older people who have very complex health issues.

Hospitals, though, are paid according to volume of services they perform. So, while they are there to heal sick people, actually, they have a perverse incentive to keep the numbers of patients rolling through their wards.

The government is faced with rocketing costs and diminishing returns – and politically, nobody dares to tackle the sacred NHS. But part of the uncomfortable solution would be to cut the number of inefficient hospitals and to offer better alternatives to hospital-based healthcare. There are lots of imaginative and effective ways to treat people’s health that don’t require an expensive, self-serving building.

It seems that for both universities and our national health service, common sense is the victim of political expediency. Our elected leaders seem to be saying that everyone deserves to go to university and every town has to have a hospital – in both cases, irrespective of quality and outcomes. That can’t be right.

So, let’s get rid of pointless and misleading university courses and close down those universities offering a poor service. Let’s concentrate on offering better, genuine alternatives to young people. And then apply the same principles to the NHS.


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