30 June 2022

Poor value degrees are a huge problem – it’s right the Government is looking at solving it

By Elizabeth Dunkley

Imagine if you had been told your whole life that the only way to succeed in life is to work hard, go to university and graduate with first class honours, only to find yourself in a low paid, non-graduate role with a mountain of debt you have no hope of ever paying off. That is the grim reality for millions of graduates. 

Thankfully, the Government has finally recognised that poor value degrees are a real problem. Under proposed new rules now under consultation, universities could face penalties if fewer than 75% of undergraduates complete their courses and fewer than 60% are in professional jobs or studying for a further degree within 15 months of graduating.

Since the Government announced its intention to cut down on poor value degrees a number of institutions have announced their intention to prune their course offering (although the Universities Minister has stressed that Sheffield Hallam dropping its standalone English Literature course was nothing to do with its proposals).

This may be a new announcement, but it’s a problem that has been long in the making. As previous research from the Centre for Policy Studies has shown over three decades now successive governments have failed miserably in protecting both students and the public purse.

Since the 1990s there has been a concerted attempt to push university as the only viable path for young people. In 1992, the Major government was determined to increase the number of university students without having to fund expansion. In one fell linguistic swoop the Major government achieved this aim by turning all the UK’s polytechnics and many technical colleges into universities, nearly doubling the number of graduates in the process.

Since then, successive governments have supported this attempt to pack more and more young people into higher education. In 2019, Blair’s infamous target of 50% of school leavers going into higher education was finally met. This process has been incredibly corrosive, particularly when it comes to students from less privileged social backgrounds, who are more likely to end up on poor value courses.

It is a particular tragedy, if not national scandal, when you realise that the economy is calling out for more skilled tradespeople. We have a massive ‘missing middle’ skills problem with the lowest number of technical qualifications in Europe. Yet, the British establishment has devalued vocational training, all while presenting the explosion in graduates numbers as an engine of social mobility.

In removing vocational higher education as a viable career path, entire generations of young people have been hamstrung with the idea that everyone needs a university degree to do well in life. The result is that have a new generation of dissatisfied graduates, one third of whom are not in graduate employment five to ten years after graduating — and so in most cases handing their student debt back to the taxpayer — alongside employers who cannot fill skilled manual and technical vacancies.

All that being said, there are of course more ways to measure the value of a degree than by earning potential. Many study their subject for the pleasure of learning and developing their expertise, not just because they want a lucrative job at the end of their course. University also offers young people a sense of independence before fully embracing the adult world and their raison d’être is to enhance students’ knowledge.

There is no reason why apprenticeships and vocational training could not recreate what for many people, is the best part about going to university: meeting new people and gaining a sense of independence at the same time. Doing so would allow us to hold onto the one incontrovertible benefit of higher education expansion. 

So, it’s certainly right in that universities are beginning to reassess the quality of the degrees that they offer. But those reforms will not get the desired results unless ministers also actively promote viable vocational alternatives, in ways that make them attractive to young people.

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Elizabeth Dunkley is a Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.