17 July 2023

Sunak’s ‘crackdown’ on low-value courses is too little, too late


What is the point of university?

The Victorians saw it either as a way of transmitting the knowledge of the best that mankind had written or done down the generations, or as a way of keeping up with the scientific powerhouse of a newly united Germany. The idealists and meritocrats of the post-war era saw it as the last word in social mobility.

An element of all those mentalities persists amongst today’s students, lecturers, and educationalists. But any fair-minded assessment of the modern undergraduate must admit that a significant chunk of today’s students see it as an excuse to spend three years getting pissed, making friends, and earning a solid 2:1 that will help them glide into an identikit job in recruitment, consulting, or HR.

That is the basic social compact that we have come to associate with university. As the number of school leavers attending surged from 15% or so in the 1980s to above Tony Blair’s target of 50% by 2019, the promise was that an ever-expanding – and grateful – graduate class would contribute to a virtuous cycle of economic and academic expansion. This nominally justified tuition fees.

The reality has been a tad different. As Rishi Sunak has highlighted today, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that one in five graduates – or about 70,000 students every year – would be better off financially if they had not gone to university. One in three graduates are in jobs that don’t require a degree. They spent three years racking up debts (and hangovers), effectively for nothing.

That’s why the Prime Minister is right to say ‘our young people are being ripped off’. Why saddle yourself with over £9,000 of debt a year if it’s leaving you in the same role you could have had anyway? Having been told by their parents, school, and society that a degree was a passport to a better future – or peddled pious twaddle that a university education was its own reward, whatever the personal financial hit. 

This not only matters to the students themselves, but to the public finances. It’s estimated that only 17% of students will ever be able to repay their loan in full. It has also been forecast that, by the 2040s, the value of outstanding loans will be around £460bn. Why should taxpayers bail out graduates surprised that a 2:2 in Creative Arts is not a passport to prosperity?

As such, Sunak is right to want to tackle this problem for both moral and economic reasons. Cracking down on the number of students who can attend, and the fees that can be charged, for under-performing courses should reduce the number of students losing out from higher education. It should also be made clear to students before they pick a course how much they are likely to make, so they can judge the academic/earnings trade-off. 

Moreover, encouraging more school leavers into apprenticeships and vocational qualifications will help plug our skills gaps, but also do its bit to buttress the public finances. A growing number of higher apprenticeships are already delivering larger earnings – and higher tax receipts – than most degrees. Our economy requires a rebalancing between an academic minority and a practical majority.

Unfortunately, the Government’s proposals fall far short of the broader revolution required in our academic sector. Sunak may be putting up a few more barriers between school leavers and pointless degrees, but he is not doing enough to overcome the deep-seated insistence amongst the British petit bourgeois that university is their only route to success, and vocational training a mark of failure. 

What is really needed is a revolution in mindsets. But that, barring a miracle, is hardly likely to occur. So we shall have to settle for a revolution within the universities themselves. Ever since Margaret Thatcher first encouraged institutions to think of themselves as businesses, the sector has been on a path towards ever-greater expansion: money-makers first, seats of learning second. 

Successive governments have only aided this process: John Major abolishing the polytechnics and creating dozens more middling universities overnight; Blair putting numbers before standards and financing them through tuition fees; the Coalition hiking fees as numbers spiked, forcing tens of thousands more students to pay tens of thousands more, only to discover they’d been sold a pup. 

This has created a vicious circle in our higher education sector. Growing numbers of students encourages universities to borrow to expand; to finance this expansion, even more students are required. The academic consequence of this Ponzi scheme is to ensure that universities attract school leavers by offering the best grades. Hence why, by 2022, four in ten graduates were receiving firsts.

So even as today’s 16-24 year-olds are less likely to be literate and numerate than their parents and grandparents, they are supposedly the highest academically achieving generation on record. Our universities’ devotion to this fantasy matters when our stagnant economy requires us to prioritise research in scientific and technological innovation, not producing low-earning humanities grads.

The only option conservatives have is to take the Henry the Eighth approach: nationalise our universities, and close many of them down. Pick an arbitrary start date – the start of the First World War, perhaps, or the end of the Second – and shut any institution opened after that. Reopen them only as institutes of scientific research or practical training. Make Media Studies illegal.

Of course, such an aspiration is as much a fantasy as some of the grades being handed to today’s graduates. Broken the business model of our universities may be, but they account for significant chunks of their local economies, with 10 UK institutions accounting for at least 5% of local jobs in their environs. Shutting them would be act on a par with closing of the mines – Harold Wilson’s greatest legacy

Whilst the Conservatives may be able to reflect happily upon their record on schools, they have also spent the last 13 years creating a Helot class of disillusioned, left-leaning, unproductive and over-educated graduates.

Sunak’s measures will go a little way to stemming that tide. But before the Tories are willing to admit the reality of our university problem, it will be too little, too late. 

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor at ConservativeHome.

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