Monday 17 June 2013

UK wises up to dumbing down of exams

Timely push for academic rigour and vocational training
By Teresa Lim, Published The Straits Times, 15 Jun 2013

IT IS quite a feat that Mr Michael Gove has pulled off. Britain's Education Secretary is one of the few ministers to deliver on their election promises. Apparently there is a bank of civil servants at Whitehall whose sole purpose is to obstruct change.

But Mr Gove pushed through the barrier to announce early this week that he will reform British GCSEs, returning them in 2015 to the academic rigour of O-levels like the ones taken in Singapore. The emphasis will go back to core subjects such as English, science, maths, history and geography.

Interestingly, this drive towards greater academic content coincides with a call to bring Britain's polytechnics back.

The London-based Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has just released a paper on higher education which warns that Britain now suffers from significant shortages of workers with intermediate or Level 3 technical skills.

Twenty-one years ago in 1992, more than 30 polytechnics were allowed to rebrand themselves as universities in a bid to remove the perceived stigma of vocational courses, unfairly considered the fallback of the less intelligent or the socially disadvantaged.

Many of these new universities moved away from their traditional strengths to offer more academic subjects, a strategy that has not been wholly successful.

Just as Britain is following Singapore by returning to the exams-orientated O-level format, like Singapore it is also recognising that an efficient economy needs vocationally trained workers as well as university graduates.

While the UK ranks 11th in the OECD for people with high or degree-level skills, it ranks 21st for those with intermediate skills. The IPPR admonishes: "A policy of simply supplying more graduates on its own will not do."

In any case this policy has had a hiccup since last year, when undergraduate numbers dipped significantly after tuition fees increased. University applications from the UK fell by 8.9 per cent after fees were hiked to £9,000 (S$17,700) a year. At some of the newer universities like London Metropolitan, enrolments last year nearly halved, by 43 per cent.

It does not take a maths genius to calculate that when high tuition fees collide with record levels of youth unemployment, many more teenagers and their parents will think twice before committing upwards of S$50,000 to a three-year course in "hospitality leadership".

This has had a tremendous knock-on effect on the financial viability of many universities.

The University of Salford Manchester, formerly the Royal College of Advanced Technology, has just announced it will dismantle an entire school and nearly all its courses in politics, languages and history, to bring costs down.

At the London Metropolitan, formed 11 years ago from the merger of two former polytechnics, two-thirds of courses have closed.

The government is well aware that growth in the UK depends on skilled workers. Trained managers, professionals and associate professional or technical staff are expected to fill 47 per cent of jobs by 2017, up from 43 per cent today.

Britain competes with countries that also invest in higher education - by 2020, China will be producing more graduates than the US and Europe combined.

The British government is trying to fund more places for higher learning by making young people pay for it themselves with the help of student loans, repaid by graduates only when they earn enough to do so.

However, the IPPR believes the government has over-estimated the number of these loans to be paid back, creating a future black hole in its public finances.

It suggests that the solution lies in providing more vocational opportunities at universities and technical colleges.

The current problem is that there are no clear pathways for those with technical qualifications to progress to a more advanced diploma or degree. But universities could collaborate with companies on specially designed training schemes that go hand in hand with apprenticeships.

Such a vocational route would not need large amounts of state subsidies and at the same time help to fill those universities with plunging enrolments.

Local students could be offered the chance to study while living at home or to combine their courses with paid on-the-job training, reducing the cost of a full-time on-campus degree.

The IPPS reckons that these "fee-only" degrees should cost only £5,000. Because they are provided by a university or a polytechnic linked to a university, "the status and attractiveness of the vocational track generally will be raised" and not be seen as for those who have "failed academically".

Britain is grappling with a modern world of complex technology where new skills are needed in areas such as the digital economy, life sciences, pharmaceuticals and the low-carbon sector.

At present, even in parts of the economy where it has been strong traditionally - engineering and professional and financial services - Britain is hamstrung by a shortage of intermediate skills. Young people are just not so good in reading or mathematics any more after years of dumbed-down GCSEs.

This is why Education Secretary Michael Gove has been so determined to bring back proper written exams. Coursework currently accounts for 25 per cent of total marks even though it is a system that is only too easily abused.

Together with multiple re-takes, it has contributed to what has been labelled "the race to the bottom" in standards, when pupils do not even have to study whole plays at school but only sections of plays.

The writer is a Singaporean based in London.

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