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Par for the course or dumbing down?: The (intended or unintended?) threat to higher education standards posed by the Skills Bill

  • 1 December 2021
  • By Bahram Bekhradnia

The Government is about to redefine higher education to include courses that are no higher than A-Level or GCSE standards. We should all be worried, says HEPI’s Founder and President, Bahram Bekhradnia.

Dumbing down in higher education is to be deplored. Government rhetoric about this has been consistent and clear, not least when it comes to criticising universities for the increasing number of 2:1 and 1st class degrees awarded. Yet the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which has just received its Second Reading in the House of Commons, undermines accepted notions of higher education standards – to the extent that anyone pursuing a GCSE-level module or even lower can be regarded as pursuing ‘a course of higher education’.

The Bill defines a higher education course as:

(a) a course of any description mentioned in Schedule 6 to the Education Reform Act 1988, or 

(b) a module of such a course, where it is undertaken otherwise than as part of that course.

The first of these conditions is unexceptional and repeats the current definition of higher education courses that has applied since 1988. These include:

(a) a course in preparation for a professional examination at higher level;

(b) a course providing education at a higher level (whether or not in preparation for an examination).

But the second (b) – defining a module of a higher education course as a course of higher education in its own right – (apart from the odd and circular logic) potentially drives a coach and horses through accepted notions of what constitutes higher education.

The 1988 definition took the course as a whole, and while a course may contain modules at a lower level, that was acceptable so long as the course as a whole was of a standard above A-Level. Taken on their own, modules could only be courses of higher education if they themselves provided ‘education at a higher level’. Of course, universities provide some modules that in themselves are not as demanding as others. Many undergraduate degrees, including at universities with the most demanding entry qualifications, do not require students to have had any previous subject knowledge on entry, even though A-Levels and GCSEs in those subjects may exist. Such degrees would include modules in their first year at least, for which the subject knowledge will not be at a higher level.

And beyond that, many universities also offer ‘languages for all‘ short courses from beginner level up which can provide credit towards a student’s degree in unrelated subjects, or they might offer courses of elementary statistics for non-STEM students. This is fine for students’ social and personal development, as well as helping to meet increasing demand from employers for language and statistical skills. So long as these modules are integrated into a degree or Higher National level programme, then the previous definition rightly regarded the course as a whole as ‘higher education’. But it did not define such modules themselves as ‘higher education’. It was a course as a whole that was considered. The innovation introduced by this Bill is that all modules themselves are now regarded as courses of higher education, regardless of the context in which they are taken or whether they provide education at a higher level.

What possible sense could there be in defining a language module for beginners, taken in isolation, as a ‘higher education course’, which is what the new Bill allows. So if the module consists of a MOOC at a low level (moderated by a tutor), which could be integrated into a degree programme, and an individual enrols at a university to take that MOOC but is not enrolled on any module or course beyond that MOOC, they would be regarded as having undertaken a ‘higher education course’. Many universities will allow members of the local community to take such modules, which will then, if the Bill passes as drafted, provide them with higher education credits.

How has this come about? It is to be hoped that this is an inadvertent consequence of a laudable desire to increase flexibility in higher education and enable students who may not have committed themselves to a full degree programme to accumulate modules over time and eventually obtain a higher education qualification. Indeed, that is already relatively commonplace. But this measure goes well beyond that. Whether inadvertently or not, and for reasons that are unclear, the Bill redefines a ‘module’ of a course of higher education as itself being a ‘higher education course’ whatever its level, with consequences that are potentially damaging and certainly will not be helpful to maintaining standards. It also creates a potential headache for those responsible for funding and regulating higher education and its quality.  And there is an odd logic in defining a component of something as being that something itself. One might have expected parliamentary draughtsmen to balk at making such an obvious error, and the Office for Students at least to have raised alarm at the problems they will be faced with.

We should be quite clear, unless it provides education at a higher level, it is not the module itself that is ‘higher education’ but the course of which that module is part and which leads to a higher education qualification. In that context the module might provide credits that count towards that qualification, but that does not make the module itself ‘higher education’, and certainly doesn’t make that module a ‘higher education course’. It is laudable to wish to increase flexibility and to enable students to take high-level modules and accumulate them in order to obtain a degree. But there is no reason in pursuit of that aim to debase the currency of what is regarded as ‘higher education’. It will not take much to put right this mistake (it is to be hoped that it is a mistake). It will only take the addition of a few words to the end of the offending definition, and amending it to:

(b) A module of such a course, where it is undertaken otherwise than as part of that course so long as that module is of a standard above A-Level.

For another recent HEPI blog on the design of the forthcoming Lifelong Loan Entitlement, see Professor Tim Blackman’s thoughts here.

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