'UK slipping down graduate league'
BBC online, 8/9/10

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (who dem?) says in a report today that the UK has fallen from third highest to fifteenth among top industrialised nations for the proportion of young people graduating. The tone of this, and similar reports suggests that the general mood should be one of panic, as the UK finally succumbs to the death rattle of a pneumonic nation in decline.

Quite apart from the creepy racism implicit in this kind of thinking ('we're even below them,' you can hear them shudder. 'The Poles. The Irish. Our children will be cannibals.') there are other reasons to unclench our buttocks and relax after hearing this kind of thing.

1. It's not a race. Who benefits from the knowledge of these enormously relative positions anyway? Did you know what position we were in last year? Or the year before that? How would you have felt if the headline had read, 'Britain in top twenty nations for graduates, for tenth year running.'? Maybe proud, maybe not. This article is all about perspective, and the way in which truth is presented to us to suit the agenda of the writer. When did you stop beating your wife?

2. It doesn't compare like for like. Normally when you present a top twenty, you define the criteria by which subjects are ranked. Record sales, for example (in the days when records actually existed) providing an easy scale to chart the hit parade. But 'percentage of graduates' conceals deep underground oceans of differences. Do we mean universities or colleges? How long do they have to study? What can we say about the relative quality of the courses, or the integrity of the assessment and graduation system? I read a similar report today which claimed that the University of Cambridge had 'finally' pipped Harvard as the best University in the World. Excuse me as I pop my Dom Perignon (that's not prison slang), but who decided the criteria? Why wasn't the criteria different? You don't have to have a degree in science to appreciate that Humanities graduates (e.g. journalists) don't require quite the burden of proof or the same rigour of methodology in order to accept the informal findings of a survey, no matter how pale the provenance, as the natural sciences, which at least have the appeal of being reassuringingly, soul-destroyingly refutable.

3. The timing is suspiciously right. Don't get me wrong; I also want funding for Universities to be maintained (somehow; don't ask me how. I've already checked down the back of my sofa), but the upcoming University Funding Commission is looming, and further education institutions are bracing themselves for an onslaught. Voila! a survey alleging to prove that we're slipping behind the dagos, and if we're not frightfully careful, the Queen will be smoking Turkish cigarettes and speaking German. Again.

4. It's not all bad news. Would you like to know who we're doing better than? Canada, for one. Yes, Canada, that cesspit of poverty and ruin. Er, actually, have you seen Canada? It's a Utopian counter-example to the British adventure. Enormous, gorgeous, prosperous and notably, with a higher standard of living than we have. You can feel it in the air. It just feels...richer. The infrastructure is new and maintained; the air is clean; the transport is a model of civic excellence. We're wonderfully smug in the UK about our fabulous international gold standard of living, but I think many Britons would benefit from taking a ferry to Denmark, or a red-eye to Vancouver in order to feel like third world migrants must have felt like landing on the Limehouse docks in 1880. 'Blimey,' they thought, 'They seem to be doing alright.'

I delight in reading educational surveys. I get a warm glow whenever I see them leading the breakfast news or the second story in a newsheet. My hamster gets an even warmer glow when I shred them and line his cage with the remnants.

That's a lie. I don't have a hamster.


  1. I'm from Canada and moved the UK a year ago. I think you need to apply your own argument to your 4th point. Who decided Canada's better than Britain? What's the criteria? I, for one, prefer it on this side of the Atlantic.

  2. Perhaps I just saw it on a good day :) Attempts at humour aside, I think national comparisons are odious- they're never like for like, anyway- and a survey like this one is designed to send chills up the reader's spine, when none are appropriate. I love Canada; I love the UK, and for many different reasons. I am, after all, here, and not there. My point is, that these surveys are usually more interesting for their provenance than their findings. And when it comes to education, I have learned to sup with a very long spoon when I hear 'new research' coming out...


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