15 August 2021

Weekly Briefing: A premium experience?


For all the upheaval of the last 18 months and the hoo-ha about inflated A Levels, there’s little sign that Covid is going to radically change our university system. Applicant numbers remain high and the residential model popular, for the reasons it always has been: many young people like the idea of a clean break, finding their feet in a new city and meeting new people. If anything, that desire will have been intensified by 18 months of heavily restricted socialising.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t be looking long and hard at the way higher education works.

As our editor-in-chief Robert Colvile argues here, the basic issue is that we still produce too many graduates, many of whose degrees confer neither a first-rate education, nor higher earnings. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that about 70,000 students a year, roughly one in five, would have been financially better off not going to university. Equally, the ‘graduate premium’ masks a huge amount of divergence between courses and job outcomes. For every high-earning lawyer or doctor there are several grads doing paid jobs they could have got without a degree.

Given the cost of a three-year BA is approaching £30,000 just for tuition, you could hardly blame students for thinking twice about applying at all. It’s a financial problem for the Government too, as a huge chunk of each year’s cohort will never get round to repaying the cost of their degree, leaving the taxpayer on the hook for the remainder. Little wonder the Intergenerational Foundation called the English system ‘a self-perpetuating debt-generating machine which short-changes young people’.

The debate on university numbers has understandably tended to focus on ‘Mickey Mouse courses’, with low entry requirements and poor job prospects. Media Studies, perhaps with a unit in ‘Beckhamology’, is the archetypal example. The stock response, which happens to have great merit, is that we need to put more resources into vocational routes for those who are not suited to university.

But this back-and-forth misses out another important point – that university is often a poor use of time even for the academically gifted. I’ve lost count of the number of people now in white collar jobs who say their degree offered them no preparation for their career, usually because they learned pretty much all they needed to know on the job anyway. (Nowhere is this truer than my own trade, where formal training is no match for life at the news coalface.)

With obvious exceptions – medicine and engineering, for instance – degrees often act less as a qualification than an expensively acquired signal that you are a certain type of person. You could equally argue that a chunk of the ‘graduate premium’ comes from people who would probably have done well in their careers with or without a degree, but who felt compelled to study one because it’s the done thing.

To compound matters, the high number of Firsts and 2:1s now being awarded, means even that signalling element of the great higher education sorting hat isn’t working that well, which is why many employers have their own in-depth assessment process.

Of course, going to university isn’t a baldly utilitarian calculation – new experiences, new friends and a love for one’s subject are all  part of the equation. But with the costs now so high, we really need to ask whether the output is worth the time and money, either for individuals or the state.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.