Today is the day on which students in England and Wales get their A level results, and on that depends the fate of any of them wanting to go on into higher or further education. Social media is full of reassuring messages for those judged to have ‘failed’. One which moved me greatly was from a former student of mine who is now a Professor of History, and who came to us with what he calls ‘crap A levels’. But in those days (the late 1980s) we could take him with those grades; we could not now. Why the difference? Back then higher education was not a ‘market’ and with numbers of applicants fewer than they are now, we were allowed to exercise our professional judgement. Mine was that he had the attitude of mind and the determination to succeed, and his A level results in no way measured his real potential; something had gone wrong at exam time, but I was confident that could be put right. A BA and a PhD later, he showed the wisdom of that attitude. He was not the only one, but I admired his determination then, and I admire his sharing his poor A level performance with others – may it encourage them.
Sometimes exams don’t work in the way they are meant to. Sometimes we don’t work at them in the way we are meant to (after all between 16 and 18 many people discover other interests in life). It is easy when the results don’t go the way you wanted to bemoan your fate. In an era where league tables of Universities seem to have taken on a life of their own, it is even easier to be despondent because you cannot get into the place you wanted and you have to settle for less. That is one way of thinking about it; but it is the wrong one. The UK in fortunate in having lots of good universities, and that can mean that if you take a bit of time, you can still find one which suits you and in which you will do well. League tables tell you something, but not everything. They tell undergraduates very little about the quality of the teaching they will receive for their £9k fees – which is why the Government is driving forward with plans for a ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’. Of course such exercises cannot measure what they claim, but that is true of the Research Excellence Framework, and we have lived with that for much of my academic career. If we are to have league tables (and like the poor they are always with us) let us at least have ones with proxies for teaching excellence.
We hear much about so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, presumably from those with PhDs in quantum mechanics. Most degrees are not vocational in a direct sense. No one, after all, knows how many engineers, chemists, accountants and lawyers the economy will need, and most past attempts to second-guess it have failed, Newman thought what was needed were people who knew how to think critically and who were able to adapt themselves to the demands of any career – vocational training could be provided on the spot. I have spent my life either teaching bright young minds, or helping run places which do that. It is not, someone said to me the day ‘much of a career’. I agreed. It isn’t, it is a vocation. Universities began as places where the Church and the State could acquire bright young men to help run them, but they soon acquired what all good universities have, which is a love of learning for its own sake, and a desire to work with young minds to help them achieve their best. For all the many changes, such an ethos still lies at the heart of our universities, and those young (and now, thank goodness some not so young) people who go there will embark on an adventure in learning which will help equip them with the critical thinking skills needed to be be of service to themselves and society in the fast-changing world into which they will graduate.
I wish them all well.