Lower aspirations for higher education

The British university system was until recently seen as one of the best in the world. Now students pay dearly for the privilege of supporting big business, says Barbara Gunnell

Since 2012 and the increase in university fees, effectively to £9,000 a year, there has been a steady erosion of logic in the debate about universities, their funding and the fundamental purpose of a university education.

Take three news items about British university fees in just two days at the end of February. Firstly, Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, whose party officially backs the abolition of university fees, says that his party’s policy was just too expensive. But, he adds, more young people than ever are going to university and, thanks to him, no student will have to pay a penny up front. Second piece of news: a YouGov /Guardian poll reveals that most parents in England and Wales think university degrees are not actually worth the money. The poll finds that while more students may be enrolling in university, it is parents from higher social classes who are more likely to believe that university is a good route to a career.

A third story, a report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, cuts across all this and and raises the really important question: What actually is the point of a university education? This ESRC-funded research, carried out for CIPD at Oxford University, reveals that almost a third of British employees are overqualified for their jobs; that some 22 per cent of all UK jobs require no more than primary education; and that the UK has the second-highest level of “over-qualification” among OECD countries. Put really bleakly, Britain has ceased to be a country that needs so many graduates or so many universities, except perhaps as an export or foreign-exchange-earning venture. And yet British universities and the education they provided have until recently been considered among the very best in the world.

A Martian reading these stories would be forgiven for thinking that it was a strange kind of system that encouraged poor people to take out loans for an education to better their prospects of securing jobs that did not actually require any kind of training.


Seeing education only through the prism of economic returns has a way of ending up in such gloomy prognoses. The arguments in favour of student fees have concentrated, as Nick Clegg did, on the belief that a graduate would earn more over a lifetime and therefore could easily repay the loan. David Willetts, the Universities Minister, calls it “the graduate premium” and argued (last year) that the continuing value of the premium – “reflects the fact that modern economies have a growing demand for graduates.”

No politician has yet dared ask what happens if the economy no longer seems to need educated workers. The idea that there must be an easily perceived economic link between a particular government investment and a wished-for outcome has taken root in all political parties. It would be a brave minister who argued that a well-educated society was a good thing in its own right, possibly also generating unpredicted economic benefits. The need for all government spending, even on education, to generate a measurable return on investment has become the only parliamentary debate to be had.

Unfortunately, as the Public Accounts Committee regularly reveals, governments are not always good at choosing their investments wisely, or at accurately predicting the returns on those they do invest in.

Take Willetts’ statement following a tour in May 2013 of Sheffield Hallam University:

“ I was highly impressed … Students there are being supported through the development of a National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering. It will work with Britvic, Coca-Cola Enterprises, Kraft, Mars, Nestle and United Biscuits who will contribute equipment, facilities, mentors and advisers. The project addresses the recent finding that many food manufacturing plants regularly lie idle – the prime reason being a lack of skills to identify and rectify breakdowns. The Centre has an ambitious target to help to add £1 billion in Gross Value Added in the food and drink industry, as well as to get more graduates engaged in the industry.”

There is considerable pathos in this boast. It is obviously a good idea to train people to mend broken-down food-processing equipment, but it is not exactly a vision that lifts the spirits or inspires a nation to reach for the stars.

Nor do such centres of excellence seem likely to fulfil their economic promise to future graduates since, a year on from the visit, large companies such as these are the gloomiest about their future labour needs. The latest labour market assessment of the CIPD (whose report is quoted above) finds 40 per cent of small and medium businesses expect to take on staff in the coming months, compared to just 5 per cent of large employers. The smaller employers, as it happens, include all those creative start-ups most likely to employ the graduates from the soft liberal arts courses that have been so undermined by Government’s total withdrawing of teaching support.

It may sound economically correct and hard-headed to base university funding on an assumed return on capital, but where is the evidence, for example, that investing in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) subjects produces better economic returns than backing the arts and humanities? The decision to limit public investment in higher education teaching to those subjects on grounds of economic return is as ideologically driven as the rallying cry was in an earlier age “education for education’s sake”, a phrase seldom heard in government circles these days.

Neither is there much logic to the “graduate premium” argument that students should gamble on their future success and take out large loans. It may be right for higher earners to pay more tax when they do succeed but that is a different matter.

If the core principle is that an individual should pay for a degree-course because it might secure him or her a better-paid career over a lifetime, then surely this would apply equally to secondary school education. Those who have a secondary education are clearly more likely to get higher paid jobs than if they finished school or stopped paying attention at, say, 11. But, you could argue, why is the taxpayer coughing up for any individual child to have a better career? Why not save the taxpayer money and make parents pay for any secondary education (if it is needed). Poorer families could of course take out loans to finance their children’s secondary education as they now have to do to finance their university education .

And why stop there? Children who absorb basic primary skills are more likely to get a job than those who can barely read or write. Should the state be paying for this? Since an increasing number of jobs today – shelf-stacking, warehouse packing, cleaning etc – require no formal education at all, why not abandon the whole state education exercise? Those who want their children to have a better career can simply hire tutors and if needs be take out loans on behalf of their toddlers.

In short, if an individual’s education at any level is seen purely an investment for a future economic return to the individual, then perhaps the government has no business spending any money at all on education.

But politicians do, whether they say it out loud or not, clearly recognize that education, even third-level education, cannot be left to the individual any more than public health or rubbish disposal can be a matter of individual choice. Children are born into a culture. Education is integral to that culture and governments and citizens pursue their daily lives with a vision of the kind of country we are and want to become and want our children to live in. We have ambitions (even if they differ in important detail) of the kind of citizens we want future generations to be and of how those ambitions are achieved.

Do we want to be a low-wage economy with a small highly-educated, highly-paid upper-class (which is were we are heading) or would we prefer to live among a generally well-educated population which values its culture and civilization?

Putting a price tag on every engagement of the brain leads to barbarism – to daft questions like “Is it worth studying philosophy?” and from there to even dafter ones like “Is it worth composing this piece of music”. In no time at all we will be asking “Is it worth reading books?”

Footnote: I would like to declare an interest. In October 2010, around the time that the Government endorsed the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, known as the Browne report, I joined the many who became concerned at the impact it would have on the study of the humanities. This unease was well-described at the time by Martin McQuillan, Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Kingston University in an article on “The Privatisation of the Humanities”. Last year, in response, a colleague and I started to explore the idea of providing a “free university” for those who felt priced out of a traditional humanities education. The idea was to use the abundant free cultural resources of a city such as London to create a “free university”. It is not London-specific and could and should be replicated elsewhere. You can learn more about this project by watching the video here or by contacting us through the website.

The article was written by Barbara Gunnell. It originally appeared on openDemocracy.


Tags: , , , ,


Share this Post