Inflating ourselves into irrelevance

By skepticlawyer

I have formed the view, over the last few years, that it is difficult to combine quality university education with the charging of very high fees to students. This is because, soon enough, the fee paying students will demand things of the course providers that those who received their education for free or for very little never did (or do). This is exacerbated when people paying different fee levels take the same course together (ie, sharing lectures and tutorials), something that is common in the UK. There are large fee gaps depending on national origin (sometimes even within the UK — Scotland is currently trying on a version of the ‘out of state’ fees common in the US, where all non-Scots–including the English–pay a higher fee to attend Scottish universities), whether the degree is an initial or second degree, and so on.

Most of these demands, at least initially, are legitimate and fair: better quality teaching, part-time provision, course materials included. I recognize those demands because I’ve made them myself. No-one likes to feel they are being played for a sucker. As yet, British students — at least at the better universities — have not succumbed to the ‘grade inflation’ so common in the US, but as the fees climb, I can see it becoming inevitable. First the demands coalesce around good teaching, grading consistency, provision of quality course materials. In time, however, they become ‘I paid my money, where’s my degree?’

People I know argue that this sort of thing is commoner among international students — they are perceived to have ‘purchased’ their degrees. However, to pretend that ‘home’ students don’t do the same thing is to engage in willful blindness. The hardest thing about attending a US ‘Ivy’ is not the difficulty of the course material. It’s gaining admission in the first place. Thereafter, one can be assured of a steady diet of As, thanks to grade inflation. The students who gain a place are incredibly bright and able — don’t get me wrong — but the degrees for fees phenomenon means that, by and large, they are already fully formed in the final years of high school education, which in the better US high schools (both public and private) is of outstanding quality.

In Britain, where the best universities have avoided (thus far) grade inflation, it is the high schools that have so far succumbed, as this worrying little graphic reveals:


Many British students, having achieved stellar results all through school, get the rudest of rude awakenings when they get to one of the better universities and can’t break a ‘C’ grade, or can do so only with great difficulty.

The shift is a profound one, and while it shares a family resemblance with the problem across the Atlantic, it is not the same. The Americans are relying on their elite high schools to train their future leaders. University merely ’rounds off’ the exercise, providing social cachet and legal drinking opportunities. In Britain, students come in woefully underprepared: second year law students with an alleged ‘commercial focus’ who do not know the difference between flat rate and reducing balance interest, for example, or how to calculate an APR. Just this week, I met two young women studying first year mathematics who had not yet encountered hexadecimal; I’m hoping I didn’t look too stunned.

Of course, the elite British high schools are probably as good as the elite American ones, with the awful caveat that there are far fewer of them relative to total population. Britain depends heavily on its universities to sort out the mess, while the Americans just accept that (certain) degree certificates indicate ‘quality’: after all, little Dick and Jane got into Harvard, didn’t they?

Getting the best out of Britain’s best and brightest means not giving them the same sort of arbitrage opportunity that able Americans enjoy at university, simply because Brits already get it at school. This means (and there is a large part of me hoping I am wrong) that university education would be good for ‘our national future’ if it were free or very cheap, but entirely dependent on merit for entry.

As we all know, no country can afford to expand its higher education sector (as has happened across the West in the last 50 years) and keep university education cheap or free without degrading quality. This crucial and very basic piece of economics has been missed by all the anti-tuition-fee student protestors who’ve busily clogged up central London and other parts of the country. That is why fees are on the up and up, and why there’s growing recourse to corporate sponsorship — universities will go broke otherwise. But fees and sponsorship present their own challenges, even in the very best universities: grade inflation is merely the most obvious.

In short, people, if you want university education that is free or very cheap and also still good quality, then far fewer of you will be able to go to university, many universities will have to close, and many careers that have been ‘credentialised’ will need to be returned to an apprenticeship system — nursing, accountancy and — yes, you read it here — most of law. Two years at university is sufficient for law; beyond that, the material taught is not useful, and the workforce is more relevant. There is still no substitute for the senior partner’s blue pencil.

It is not pleasant to admit that one of the things considered most liberating about our inheritance from the 1950s and 1960s — the mass expansion of higher education — has been a mistake. Perhaps you could add it to architecture from the same period when considering other similarly egregious mistakes to stick in the ‘debit’ side of the ledger, while improved public health and hygiene and social liberalisation go on the ‘credit’ side (warning, accounting not to scale, as anyone who has studied accountancy already knows).

I suppose, then, I’m proposing a mass outbreak of anti-credentialism, tied to a more flexible labour market. Another mistake the student protestors make is failing to understand that the harder you make it to fire people, the harder you make it to hire them as well — hence employers and their current obsession with all those pieces of paper. That much is fairly basic economics. Where I am departing from orthodoxies of both left and right is in my argument for elitism, and my strong suspicion — with a few exceptions, like areas of medical research — that markets and universities do not mix well. When the latter tries to ape the former, for example, that’s when you get second year law students who can’t tell you what a bond is, or how to calculate an APR.

As things currently sit, the universities and the students attending them are starting to look a bit like something from the Weimar Republic: they’re busily inflating themselves into irrelevance. Time was when university attendance meant a much higher salary over one’s lifetime. These days, that only holds if you go to one of the best universities. All the students who attend the former polytechnics get is serious levels of debt.

Time for a major rethink, I suspect.


  1. Posted November 20, 2011 at 4:45 am | Permalink

    Hi SL. I have been writing on related issues –

  2. Posted November 20, 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    At least Australian universities generally have the wit to keep the school-leaver and graduate intake separate when it comes to lecturing and tutoring, and often give the graduates more ‘goodies’, reflecting their higher fee payments — British universities don’t, which leads to lots of simmering resentment.

  3. conrad
    Posted November 20, 2011 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    “As yet, British students — at least at the better universities — have not succumbed to the ‘grade inflation’ so common in the US,”

    I think you’ll find that this isn’t true at least at the postgraduate level. I know that a few years ago they had to change what you need to qualify for a PhD at Cambridge and it went from something that could be summarized as “something reasonably good” to “a big piece of work”. I can also look through people getting PhDs in my area on the web, and it’s easy for me to spot lots of shitty ones. C’est la vie I guess — I presume they are worth lots of money like Aus, and so they are simply the next thing to get debauched (it’s also very hard to actually pick good PhD students incidentally, and I assume they have pressure to get them all through — good marks and doing a good PhD are not that well correlated).

    This of course means that you are going to have problems with your elitism argument, because if they are willing to graduate and allow shitty PhDs (and they certainly are), then there is no real reason for elitism (since they are basically allowing shitty research to be done), although concentration might make more sense.

    “I met two young women studying first year mathematics who had not yet encountered hexadecimal”

    This one might be more be a sign of the evolution of computer technology vs. something to worry about (perhaps some current IT people could chip in here).

  4. derrida derider
    Posted November 20, 2011 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Advocates of voucher schemes and the like usually point to the way it transfers power from the institution to the “customer” as the biggest virtue of their approach. But as you point out asymmetric information means that carries some big downsides for future users (eg employers) of the degree.

    Empirically, the credentialism stuff – known in labour economics as the “screening hypothesis” – is mostly wrong. This has been absolutely studied to death, and it turns out that the social rate of return on education and the private rate of return are not far apart. It seems that traditional academic study does in fact boost lifetime income more than the partner’s blue pencil.

    This is not surprising, as the partner’s blue-pencilled effort is an investment only aimed at maximising short-term firm-specific productivity rather than lifetime person-specific productivity. As economists say, to explain behaviour look to the incentives.

  5. Posted November 20, 2011 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Does it follow that an employer looking for the best ‘product’ from the education system would look for an American High School student that went on to study in Oxford or Edinburgh, and did well?

  6. Posted November 20, 2011 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Oh… The maths students not knowing hex … Didn’t they ever wonder what that button on their calculators did? (and if not, why would they be doing maths?)

    Yes to the apprenticeship idea on so many things where there is a craft (most commercially-relevant IT is a craft – the unis teach neither the theory not philosophy that allows self-education in working life, and so you get people knowing what a button does, but not when it should or shouldn’t be pushed, and when Buttons v2.1 comes out … Well, you have to go back to uni).

    The sad thing is that politicians look good by having lots of kids at uni (rather than apprenticeships or on-the-job skilling), companies love it because what was once in-house training on company time is now paid for my employee or government before hiring, and unis love it because they get to sell another course to graduates to get them “up to date” every 5 years (implying the undergrad course didn’t teach students the way to think and teach themselves).

    I think the expansion of tertiary education has been a sham, and it has served neither individuals nor employers nor society.

    If education has expanded /for real/ as much as the head count at various education levels has, then we’d have an enlightened and informed citizenry to satisfy Jefferson, and a strong democracy. We don’t.

  7. conrad
    Posted November 20, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    Actually, one other thing that you might like to think about is what causes grade inflation — there are in fact many reasons that have nothing to do with money. For example, PhD scholarships in Australia are given out purely on non-normalized grades — so if your university marks hard, you are basically cursing your students (I know one of my friends at UNSW complained that they got an overwhelming number of students from U.Syd on year, since U.Syd decided to give 100% of their students first class honors. So they really had no alternative in his area but to inflate their grades — and I doubt any other university in NSW did either). Other things include course evaluations (students like high marks), trying to reduce to consuming complaints (no-one complains when marked easily), and just expectations (which you do note). Also, if you look at the US, grade inflation has occurred even in universities that historically have charged a lot and don’t have any money problems, so it isn’t just money.

  8. conrad
    Posted November 20, 2011 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    sorry, that should be time-consuming complains

  9. Posted November 20, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    The graduate premium is shrinking rapidly (or has disappeared altogether/gone into reverse), and depends heavily on university and discipline:

    (The links are excellent, btw)

    It is common for universities to fudge the figures by drawing comparisons with GCSE (‘junior’ for Australians, ‘standard’ for Scots). The comparison with A-Levels (HSC, Higher) does not fare so well. The ONS makes the point about mass higher education explicitly, too.

    It may be a case (I think this was a point that Jim made in another post of his) that some expansion was necessary, but we are now in the process of killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

    Henry: up to a point. Edinburgh is strong in medicine and vet science; its law school is not as good as my Australian law school, for instance (having studied at both, I can compare). An American or Canadian high school high achiever who goes to Oxbridge for undergraduate study and comes out well, however? Oh yes, academically, he will be a dead set clever clogs. I know a few, and they are scary.

    Conrad: I am not talking about postgraduate education, but undergraduate and professional education. Postgraduate studies undoubtedly has a different set of equally perverse incentives — but they will, at least, be different (as well as localised, I suspect).

  10. conrad
    Posted November 20, 2011 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Alternatively, the premium in the US is still huge (especially if you consider things like unemployment and not just wages):

    so perhaps the moral is to get your degree in Aus or the UK and move to the US :).

  11. Patrick
    Posted November 21, 2011 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Presumably the market has to move towards low-cost (if not free) core content and paying for the facilitation/discussion of same?

    I.e. if you look at the number of free online courses now available from Harvard, MIT and Stanford amongst many others, and look at the model used by (eg) the CPA, CA, IA, CFA and many bar associations, then it seems to me that the real value-add is not in duplicating that core content with inferior presenters but in how to present it.

    In the past, this was the case with the textbooks. You didn’t bother with your own conflict of laws text, you just taught Dicey, the value was in how you taught it. Same thing, but now Dicey is teaching Dicey and you are solely concerned with the tutes. If you want to add ongoing assessments to measure progress etc, you can do that too.

    Then everyone can pass unified exams.

    I can see real potential for a number of 100-20th ranked global universities to co-ordinate something like this so that for each subject (accepting that most won’t offer more than a fraction of the overall subject load) there is only one global exam and course, and the individual unis differentiate around how they facilitate those courses and which ones they facilitate.

    Presumably they could actually offer every single course on a distance basis but only actively facilitate a certain number. They could also require students to take a certain proportion of locally-facilitated courses for example?

    Maybe this is actually a model for the unis currently outside of global top 100?

  12. kvd
    Posted November 21, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Especially troubling are allegations that some schools admit students they know are unlikely to repay their loans—leaving taxpayers (who guarantee some of these loans) holding the bag

    another form of moral hazard?

  13. Posted November 21, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    How true…. conducted research for my M. Ed. dissertation looking at International Education from Australian context “International Education: Experience of Students and Stakeholders”.

    In addition to issues raised I would also add that political biases become involved and having worked as an education consultant observe that neither state nor private have a monopoly on quality.

    Finally, the most glaring issue in my opinion, while international student numbers have fallen off, is that not only do adminstrative personnel responsible for “marketing” use this as an excuse to travel internationally while ignoring student welfare on campus, most do not have the required 21st century skills sets.

    Anyone working in education must have an appreciation of quality and be prepared to ask students what they think, i.e. marketing (not just selling). This is opposed to viewing (international) students as “an expensive nuisance to be tolerated”.

  14. Adrien
    Posted November 22, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    I’m not really certain I buy into the ‘top schools’ and ‘top universities’ = best and brightest etc. There’s two measures of quality in universities, research and alumnus employment. There’s usually not much disparity between these as the most prestigious places will usually draw the best academics. However three things about my personal experience cause me to cast doubts.

    1. I went to a lot of elite private schools, mostly the International School system and then the GPS schools in NSW and Qld (I moved a lot).

    I finally spat the dummy at boarding school. Enrolled in the lcla state high school and refused to budge. I can’t say the quality of education was worse at the high school. Quality depended on the teachers and the library and they were just as good as other places more or less.

    I was accepted into Sydney University but chose Griffith because the course interested me. I most definitely made the right choice. It’s said that Arts degrees don;t challenge one the way other type degrees do. That is, bright students aren’t confronted with something hard enough to make them wonder if they can hack it. Griffith did, not all the time but often enough. Sydney University’s arts courses were little more than ideological shitfights between spruikers of differing garbled language theory factions.

    But at Sydney I would have made much better ‘contacts’.

    Currently there I know quite a few Melbourne University students and the place is awash with well-heeled dummies who seem to drink for a living and there’s much scuttlebutt about viz pulling strings to pass.

    Maybe it means little, but I suspect the hierarchy is phoney.

  15. Adrien
    Posted November 22, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Not entirely phoney but far from the meritocracy it’s promoted as.

  16. conrad
    Posted November 22, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    “There’s two measures of quality in universities, research and alumnus employment.”

    At least in Australia, the second of these is very similar between the Go8 and ATN universities (surprising but true).

    One thing that people are not deconfounding here is that there is a big distinction between declining quality and grade inflation. You can have one without the other. If it’s just grade inflation we’re worried about — well, big deal, I doubt it’s that important. Alternatively, declining quality is important.

  17. Mel
    Posted November 22, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    My degree from Scumbag College is the equal of any hoity toity Oxbridge degree and I’ll head-butt anyone who says otherwise.

  18. Patrick
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Tony Abbott has one of those hoity-toity things and might not be too fazed by your headbutting Mel, why don’t you seek him out?

  19. Adrien
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    One idea might be to separate assessment and teaching institutions. With assessment being carried on exams and assignments which are anonymous both of college and student identity.

  20. Mel
    Posted November 23, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Permalink


    “Tony Abbott has one of those hoity-toity things and might not be too fazed by your headbutting Mel, why don’t you seek him out?”

    Now Paddy, let’s not incite violence against public figures as we don’t want declared a terrorist organisation.

  21. kvd
    Posted November 24, 2011 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    A level results have gone through the roof because schools have developed a very effective “sit down, shut up and learn the following facts by rote” method of teaching for the exams. Academic curiosity is actively discouraged.

    A-level literature syllabi now specify precisely what lines of what scenes of what acts of what plays might appear in the exam, so that the poor wee darlings don’t waste time learning or even reading the whole play. How on earth are they then expected to cope at university?

    From an article in The Telegraph. I found the comments interesting, with some on point for SL’s post.

  22. Patrick
    Posted November 24, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Adrien, that’s a part (maybe an ‘implicit’ one!) of what I was trying to get at above.

    I agree absolutely.

  23. Adrien
    Posted November 25, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Patrick, I think the internet is much underutilized as an education tool. It could facilitate a massive broadening of educational choices. One of the problems is that classes and curricula are standardized and tend to alienate those minds that aren’t aux fait with the kind of mind that succeeds in a particular field. Hence English courses are designed by and for people with ability; maths courses likewise.

    There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re a science person you might get more out of an English course that, say, teaches literature type skills and knowledge thru the prism of science fiction. If you’re arty, teach Maths by relating to its application in Western Art which relied on geometry until the late 19th century. You wouldn’t have to rid the curricula of traditional content, you merely expand on it.

    With the internet you can access different kinds of courses more suited to your kind of mind and in order to succeed you’d have to be a self-starter. This would work if there were examination centres that assessed your abilities by only giving tests of various levels of toughness. You’d foster even more competition if these assessment centres merely required a fee for assessment and paid no mind to the courses, if any, you’d completed.

    It’s quite often possible for students to teach themselves. Frank Zappa learned everything he knew about composition from the library bookshelf. Hacks in the education system naturally dislike this.

  24. Posted December 4, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Of the top 100 universities, 72 are in the “old” Anglosphere, 75 are in the greater Anglosphere.

    Australia apparently has the same number (4) as Netherlands and Germany and more than any other country than Canada, UK and US. Makes you wonder about other folks’ universities.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] Law School “Inflating ourselves into irrelevance” (Helen Dale on UK higher ed) I disagree but interesting perspective 20 Nov CDUlawschoolCDU Law School Video of […]

  2. […] while back, SL wrote a post on how charging very high fees for university degrees was difficult to combine with the provision […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *