17 September 2020

Defund the dons: why we need a new approach to higher education

By Sam Ashworth-Hayes

In 1999, Tony Blair set the country a target: 50% of the nation’s young people would go to university. Britain would unlock “the genius of the many” rather than relying “on the talents of the few”, and build a society ready for the oncoming technological revolution. Last year, we learned that the target had been met and exceeded. Now that the business of expanding higher education has been completed, we can take a step back and ask whether it’s worked out quite as it was supposed to. And when we find that it hasn’t, we can get on with undoing it.

Let’s start with the money. While the average returns to a degree are positive – British graduates see an increase in net lifetime earnings of about 20% compared to similar non-graduates – they do not tell the full story. Between fees, taxes, and lost earnings from three years spent on a combination of drinking, partying, and occasionally attending a lecture for a lark, roughly one in five undergraduates see a negative return on their degree. 

Students who don’t benefit from their studies pop up everywhere, but a quick look at average outcomes suggest that they’re likely to be concentrated in certain categories. If you look at the return to a degree, philosophy, English, and sociology all fall well below average. It is probably not a coincidence that American students majoring in philosophy, English, and sociology are among the most favourably disposed towards socialism. 

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that a society could produce “a very polished, but a very dangerous” group of citizens by giving them “a sense of wants which their education would never teach them to supply”. In Britain today it’s no longer the case that talented people are locked out by the rigid structure of a feudal economy, whatever our graduates tell themselves. Instead we have an overproduction of credentials. The bell curve of talent is the same as it ever was, if not shifted down slightly.

This is not immediately apparent from the grades graduates receive. If you expand higher education significantly, from the best of the best to the merely ok, you lower the quality of the average student. We would expect the numbers of graduates with lower second degrees to swell. Instead, the proportion of students awarded firsts doubled from 2006 to 2018, while the share getting a 2:2 or below fell 40%. 

It doesn’t take more than basic cynicism to spot the incentives at play. University income is a function of fees and student numbers. Charging lower fees signals lower quality education. Competition on institutional reputation is already fierce. Marking a little less harshly, though? That can be done. So performance goes up as access widens; academic standards are lowered to accommodate the new average. 

The case for defunding academia is not just that the sector sells its students short, piling debt onto them as they pursue the illusion of security. It’s that academia is fundamentally failing to fulfil its mission.

Universities received a mandate: to educate the nation’s youth, to act as a rite of passage, and an induction into British culture. They then rejected it for one they preferred: upholding and promoting the values of a small elite rather than those of the civilisation that produced them – a civilisation which they are at pains to emphasise their desire to dismantle. 

The idea behind a hands-off approach is to allow free enquiry to thrive, producing academics who will pursue the truth without fear of reprisals. What has happened in practice is that state intervention has been rejected only to be replaced by an internal framework for the policing of research, admissions, speech, and hiring in line with a left of centre consensus, funded by the taxpayer.

There is no obligation on the right to accept this as somehow inevitable. If universities wish to be political, then they are legitimate objects of political struggle. Academia’s status as funded largely without ideological strings attached is not an immutable feature of the world. If we don’t want universities to become the subject of back-and-forth battles between left and right governments then the cleanest way forward is to remove them from the government’s sphere of influence. 

Defunding academia means removing to the greatest extent possible public subsidies towards the operation and maintenance of universities. If the state wishes to fund basic research in science, or the development of new technologies, then it is at perfect liberty to issue tenders open to private consortia and universities. If it wants to commission an author to write a history explaining why Britain is a uniquely guilty country, then it can do that as well – openly. The matter of actual day-to-day finance can be resolved through alumni donations, bequests, fees, and investments. 

Without the temptations of low interest loans, fewer people would attend university. In particular, we would hope that those students who make a net loss would be directed onto a happier path. The absence of lower ability students would enable universities to restore their standards. And when those universities realise that they’re relying on the future earnings and largesse of those students to survive, they would acquire a sudden and deep interest in their wellbeing.

But the greatest benefit would be to the universities themselves. When you are not receiving government money, you are not beholden to it. Universities would be free in the sense of being beyond the state, rather than constantly keeping one eye on the need to maintain their funding structure. 

What form the university would take in such a world is uncertain. They might choose to become corporate behemoths churning out low quality degrees – although the disdain of American employers for ‘for profit’ universities suggests that the market would at least provide some discipline. They might choose to remain hotbeds of political activism, a far more palatable outcome when we are not actively subsidising it. The important thing is that they would be totally free to define their own aims and goals, rather than taking those handed down by governments. And that is a worthwhile end in its own right.

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Sam Ashworth-Hayes is a journalist and economist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.