19 July 2019

English universities have problems, but cutting students numbers is no solution

By Dr Maria Neophytou

Earlier this week on CapX, Charlotte Gill made the case for fundamental changes to the English higher education system.

Her central thesis can essentially be boiled down to this: Too many young people go to university and it’s an expensive waste of time for most, let’s send fewer young people to university. This argument is superficially attractive from a cost-saving perspective but misses a crucial factor – we need a system that works for young people, as well as our economy.

This is not to say the present system is perfect, and indeed the issue of grade inflation is one that merits serious consideration. But there is an overlooked factor in the rise of top degree classifications – competition. Last week at Impetus we sifted through 250 applications for an entry level role, and there were at least 25 excellent applications that we could have shortlisted.

It will come as no surprise to graduates that it’s a very competitive market for good jobs. And I suspect part of the rise in top degrees is a reflection of this increase in competition – undergraduates work harder (and had to work harder at school for the new A* grade), and at least some part of the rise in top degrees reflects this.

But the argument that too many graduates are not in graduate jobs doesn’t really wash. The classification system for graduate jobs is broken – it’s possible to be promoted from a graduate job to a non-graduate job, or indeed to do a “non-graduate job” such as being a paramedic which actually does require a degree. This is clearly not a system on which we should base policy. And that’s before you factor in the need to have a pool of available graduates in non-graduate jobs, to enable the number of graduate jobs to expand.

Similarly, the argument about the “graduate pay premium” being eroded is not especially strong. At face value, it seems to suggest graduates should not become teachers, or social workers, or any other less well-paid job you might take for reasons other than salary.

Many government departments would disagree with this approach, and the Department for Education should do more to tackle the myth that the graduate pay premium is the alpha and the omega of the discussion on the value of higher education. It’s right to want a return for investment for the government’s subsidy of higher education. But it’s not right to measure that return purely in pound signs.

What’s also missing from Charlotte’s analysis is the impact on young people of reducing the numbers going into higher education.

One of the most underappreciated facts in the growth of higher education has been the impact on young people from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Contrary to what is often claimed, tuition fees in and of themselves don’t seem to have led to a widening of the gap between rich and poor – students know they are much more impacted by issues like maintenance support. But the gap isn’t closing either: the rising tide lifts both boats, but doesn’t seem to lift the lower boat more.  Disparity in access to higher education is not inevitable, with London doing much better than the rest of the country, as our recent Youth Jobs Gap work showed.

And who would be hit by an enforced attempt to lower the numbers of young people accessing higher education? The risky options. Young people with borderline grades, young people with mental health issues, young people who are carers, even young people who plan to stay in their community rather than moving to a big city for more money. These are all young people who are riskier bets long term to get “graduate jobs” or earn a “graduate premium”. Are these the young people we want to dissuade from higher education?

These young people are disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds, as are most of the “risky” students you could imagine. Borderline grades from an academic perspective? Much more likely to be from the local comprehensive than a private school. Picking non-traditional subjects or applying with less traditional qualifications? Much more likely to be from Hartlepool than Cheltenham.

One of the best things about the current system is it enables universities to take a bit of a punt on students from disadvantaged backgrounds. If you’ve got the grades needed to get the degree, you can usually find a place. English higher education isn’t perfect – we’ve called for better maintenance support and better guidance for young people – but sending fewer young people to university isn’t a good answer. When considering higher education reform, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

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Dr. Maria Neophytou is Director of Public Affairs at Impetus, a charity that works to ensure disadvantaged young people succeed in school, in work and in life.