dumbed down
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Universities Minister criticises universities for offering “dumbed down” courses

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan says universities are taking advantage of students, due to offering “dumbed down” courses.

Ms Donelan has accused universities in England for “taking advantage” of students by recruiting too many on “dumbed down” courses which do not necessarily widen their chances of employment.

When speaking to the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), she said: “For decades we have been recruiting too many young people on to courses that do nothing to improve their life chances or help with their career goals.”

Claiming that social mobility is not fundamentally about getting more people into university, she added that “too many have been misled by the expansion of popular sounding courses with no real demand from the labour market”.

Notwithstanding her role, she maintains that vocational programs are better fitted to particular jobs, rather than an unnecessary, cleverly-marketed degree and added debt.

Ms Donelan said: “Since 2004, there has been too much focus on getting students through the door, and not enough focus on how many drop out, or how many go on to graduate jobs. Too many have been misled by the expansion of popular-sounding courses with no real demand from the labour market. 

“Quite frankly, our young people have been taken advantage of, particularly those without a family history of going to university. Instead, some have been left with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off in any sense.

For decades we have been recruiting too many young people on to courses that do nothing to improve their life chances or help with their career goals

– Michelle Donelan

“And too many universities have felt pressured to dumb down – either when admitting students, or in the standards of their courses. We have seen this with grade inflation, and it has to stop.”

Following on from Ms Donelan’s comments, it is expected that the government will encourage young people to consider alternatives to higher education. 

In short, the minister’s views indicate a sense of inclusion and respect for different forms of training. She said that “true social mobility is when we put students and their needs and career ambitions first, be that in higher education, further education or apprenticeships,” adding “I want your access budgets not to be spent on marketing but on raising standards”.

These remarks arrived as the government prepares policies granting school-leavers skills and qualifications, in an effort to rebalance the prevailing divide between university and other students. The intention is that these qualifications will be an indicator of social mobility, proving that it can be achieved through higher education and vocational routes.

Instead of making the case for education, the minister appears to be trying to turn some students off university by saying it is expensive and substandard.

– Jo Grady

Later this month, a green paper will be published to highlight courses which have a high drop-out rate, or where students are less prone to find a job post-graduation.

This is likely to end Tony Blair’s symbolic target that half of all young adults should enter higher education.

This new policy looks at reshaping the value of university, especially for those who would not benefit from it. Preferably, it would encourage universities to use their access funds on building standards in schools. Exeter and Kings College London were cited by the minister as institution which have supported specialist sixth forms.  

NEON director Graeme Atherton said: “The government’s own evidence still shows that going to university brings economic and social benefits for the vast majority of students – from all backgrounds, but sometimes these benefits are apparent only over the long term.

“It is not true that widening access work has taken advantage of young people; rather, it has transformed thousands of lives over the last 20 years.”

Similarly, Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, added: “Instead of making the case for education, the minister appears to be trying to turn some students off university by saying it is expensive and substandard. Universities using contextual data to increase opportunity for students from the poorest backgrounds should be applauded.”

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