27 May 2020

The really radical solution to educational inequality is fewer universities


Coronavirus means we should have radical reform of…well, insert your own personal bugbear here. An example of the genre came from The Observer‘s Sonia Sodha recently, when she suggested the crisis should prompt a rethink of how we do post-18 education.

She’s right that higher education needs a rethink, but the answer is not a “universal and residential rite of passage” or “civic service scheme” funded by the taxpayers. The truth that dare not speak its name is that if we are serious about improving people’s chances in life, we ought to be sending far fewer of them to university at all.

It follows from this that the reforms of tertiary education under the coalition government have largely been a failure and ought to be unwound.  This is not, amazingly, really about student loans or tuition fees – or if it is, only tangentially. The simple fact is that if 50% of the age cohort are to attend university then the taxpayer cannot be on the hook for that amount. It’s only if we return to a much smaller proportion – 10% to 15%, say – that the state can afford to subsidise it. 

The traditional justification for the expansion of the numbers entering higher education doesn’t work either. The argument was that graduates make more than non-graduates. So, if all are trained up then everyone will earn more – except, that’s not what actually has happened. The distribution of incomes is much as it ever was and the distinction as to who makes more has moved to the MA, not BA level

One, admittedly extreme, finding is that only Oxbridge and medical degrees bring a complete guarantee of an earnings premium. Rather more longstanding is the finding that for men an arts degree lowers lifetime earnings when the wages lost in the time doing it are included. Given that pay is at least linked to the value added by the labour this suggests the expansion of tertiary education isn’t adding value. Therefore any reform should be about reducing that expansion. Value for money is, after all, something to be desired. 

Where the currently fashionable analysis really falls off the rails is to insist, as Sodha does, that just as much attention must be paid – and the same amount of taxpayers’ money be spent – upon those who do not go to university as those who do.

To make that claim is to miss the key point that that is what the old system used to do quite well. Where the old technical colleges and polytechnics produced people who actually knew how to do things, the post-1992 institutions produce a lot more badly educated grievance studies graduates. Given that a decent plumber will make very much more over a lifetime than any sociology graduate, this really isn’t the way to be adding value.  Sure, City and Guilds wasn’t a perfect system but it did do precisely what fashion now says we need more of – apprenticeships, on the job training, the provision of saleable skills to those who had decided the academic route was not for them.

Though it’s always fashionable to suggest something new and innovative, the truth here is that we had a perfectly good system before and the best solution would be to restore it – or at least something close to it. That means downgrading third tier universities back to technical colleges – thereby eradicating the temptation to teach anything not actually useful – the second tier back to Polytecnics and leave universities for those who are genuinely academic. This will leave the problem of where all those Mickey Mouse degrees fit into the system, but then perhaps that’s no bad thing that there is no space for them.

That would be far more radical than most of the supposedly radical solutions being pushed by pundits and educationalists. Most of what passes for radicalism in this area is really just a little push in a currently fashionable direction, without any hard thinking about the kind of root-and-branch reform of the system.

There are many things wrong with the current British university system, nearly all of which would be solved by having very much less of it. It is indeed true that a system of training the young for life and work is desirable. So, let’s have one, instead of the current mess where half our young people are pushed into doing a degree which offers little to either the student or society, while saddling both with ever more debt. 

There are currently some 106 universities in the United Kingdom. As Kingsley Amis so presciently pointed out, more means worse – so let us have fewer.

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Tim Worstall works for the Adam Smith Institute and the Continental Telegraph.

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