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Let’s open up opportunities in education to deliver the biggest boost for pupil-power in generations

Let’s open up opportunities in education to deliver the biggest boost for pupil-power in generations

League tables showing the value of university courses would give universities a much stronger incentive to find and admit students with undiscovered talents, writes John Penrose MP. | PA Images

4 min read

Publishing graduate employment rates and average salaries would boost the quality of education and standardised university grades would show which university courses added the most value.

In today’s global knowledge economy, high-quality skills aren’t just the engines of Britain’s wealth and growth; they give each of us choices about what kind of life we want to live, and the kind of person we want to be.

Without them, each of us is wrapped in a straightjacket of fewer, narrower life choices. And while we have loosened the straightjacket a lot already, with more good or outstanding schools than ever before, and some of the best universities in the world, there’s more to do.

Like what?

Let’s start by asking why it’s so hard for pupils to know which of the bewildering array of different Higher or Further Education courses would be best for them.

It’s far too hard to know whether the chances of getting a well-paid job after taking this course at that University are better or worse than a similar version at a rival College a few miles away. And if they don’t know that, how can they tell if taking on thousands of pounds of student debts will be worth it or not?

So let’s publish information every year to show how many graduates from every HE and FE course at every college and university got jobs, at what average salary. It would be the biggest boost for pupil-power in generations. Suddenly, everyone would be able to see the best-value courses, Colleges and Universities in every subject.

The quality of education would soar, because the best-value courses would grow as more students applied, while poor-value ones would either improve quickly, or shrink and close.

Further Education wouldn’t be a poor relation anymore, because pupils couldn’t be pushed towards Higher Education courses which weren’t right for them; they’d be able to see which courses would equip them best for the life they wanted to lead, and vote with their feet.

Student debts would fall as more students chose high-value but cheaper Further Education courses instead of longer, more expensive University qualifications.

Universities can help a lot too.

For every other serious qualification in the UK, apart from University degrees, the same grades in the same subjects mean the same things. 

A City and Guilds qualification in plumbing is worth the same to a student or a potential employer, no matter which further education college a student studied at. A particular grade at A-level or GCSE English is worth the same whether pupils went to school in Truro or Tadcaster. 

But not University degrees. A first in English from Oxford or Cambridge isn’t worth the same as one from most former polytechnics, and that can’t be right or fair.

We wouldn’t accept Eton being allowed to award its own A Levels, especially if employers assumed they were better than the ones from every other school in the country, and we shouldn’t accept it for University degrees either.

The answer is to require Universities to standardise their grades, so a 2:1 in english or maths was worth the same no matter where students studied.

For the first time, everyone would be able to compare the A-level grades students had when they arrived with the quality of degree they’d earned when they left.

They already do it for a few subjects like medicine, but if we extended to cover everything else, it would be revolutionary.

Students would feel the effects first. Anyone who fluffed their A-levels and didn’t get into their first choice of university would have a second chance; they could still fulfil their potential by getting an equally good qualification from somewhere else. 

It would give a jolt of adrenaline to Britain’s universities as well. 

For the first time, everyone would be able to compare the A-level grades students had when they arrived with the quality of degree they’d earned when they left. 

Pretty soon, there would be league tables showing which university courses added the most value and which ones added least.

Students would beat a path to the doors of those with the best teaching, and avoid the worst like the plague. Poor performers would have to pull their socks up, and the good ones would have nothing to fear.

Even better, universities would have a much stronger incentive to find and admit students with undiscovered talents.

Bright students who’d got poor grades because they were ill on exam day, or had problems at home, or came from a disadvantaged background, would be like gold dust for admissions staff looking to vault up the value-added rankings. 

All those recurring stories about there not being enough clever working-class or ethnic minority students at posh old universities would vanish.

These few, simple changes would make Britain a far fairer place: a more socially-just, meritocratic, mobile society, where someone who works hard and succeeds has the same life chances whether their father is a duke or a doorman. Let’s undo the final knots on Britain’s straightjacket, and take it off forever.


John Penrose is the Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare.

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