The annual row over A-Levels and GCSEs is a sad affair. The young people are delighted with their results. What a shame to spoil it. The only reason the critics do is because they resent the youngsters being taken for a ride by politicians on the make.
Tony Blair is intoxicated - too uncritically - with America, the home of mass higher education. When he was Prime Minister he was determined to get one youngster in every two into a university-type institution. He did not quite succeed. But he did his best, largely by manipulating the A-Level results so that each year a higher and higher proportion of candidates met the university entrance requirement. We have now reached the point where the top universities refuse to accept As at A-Level as an adequate indicator and have introduced their own entrance tests.
Blair's supporters deny such manipulation, arguing that the big increase in A grades is due to cleverer youngsters and better teachers. I say two things to this. The first is that, in my sixth-form year at school, sitting near me in the English class were a future successful novelist, a future grammar school headmaster and the future Dean of Medicine at a leading university. We were not all Einsteins. But we were not dopes and it is insulting for these latterday Solomons to imply that, by comparison, we were.
As for our teachers, they were a dedicated band, sprinkled lavishly with first-class honours degrees, in the days when firsts were firsts: ie, they were not awarded for anything less than absolute and exceptional brilliance, meaning that one per whole undergraduate class in the degree finals was the common quota. I was astounded to read this week that Trinity College, Dublin now bestows a first on one student in every six who sits its finals. (At Dublin City University, which specialises in business-oriented courses, incredibly, it is one in four.)
When A-Levels started UK-wide in 1965, 8% of candidates' papers were given an A. The current figure is 33%. The critics, who include the former chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, call it grade inflation; and you know what happens to money when the currency inflates - it loses value. Are youngsters brighter? Are teachers better? I doubt it. But, even if they were, can it explain such an inflation? The employers in the CBI, who are having to lay on classes to teach recruits basic English and maths, would say "No" - for many of the computer-soaked products of the current education system cannot spell.
The current trend is proven to be bad for the schools and bad for both universities and employers. At first it caused a stampede for university places. Not to get one, ridiculously, became a badge of failure. So there were many misfits, with drop-out rates at some institutions running to one-in-three or more. The University of Ulster succeeded in getting itself into the top-twenty list of UK universities with the worst drop-out rates - in its case, 22%.
The key problem is that the Government's high-pressure forcing-house confuses the issue of what universities are for. Their traditional purpose was to teach students, analytically, to think. As such they specialised in teaching candidates for the learned professions, an area where there is both an existing and a constantly evolving complex body of knowledge. But now, you can take a degree in Hotel Management, Games Culture or Bakery Technology, in Golf Management - or, if you prefer, a BSc in Science Fiction.
As Blair (Fettes and St John's, Oxford) intended, this is Texas and California come to Manchester and Jordanstown. For Europe, it is certainly a new idea of a university. Vice-Chancellors, in a classic role reversal, are now in the market place chasing the youngsters. If they do not attract more students, their finance is cut. So they are in there, in the schools and in the media, selling themselves hard. The flaw is that many of the students they will attract would be better off with a different kind of higher education altogether.
The fact is that not everyone is right for university. That is not me talking. It is Jamie Oliver. "There aren't enough jobs for graduates, anyway," says the celebrated television chef. "But the Government has shut down all the places where kids learned a trade or an apprenticeship. I wouldn't have got within sniffing distance of a university, but that was never where I was going."
There talks a man who knew where he was going. Perhaps the burden of fees, with a looming heavy debt on graduation, is revealing the truth of his wisdom for many, where misdirected Government policy has not. And my final word on standards? The United Kingdom won 11 Nobel prizes in chemistry, physics, physiology and medicine in the 1960s, 13 in the 1970s, four in the 1980s - and two in the 1990s.