Britain’s university system, once the envy of the world, has become a monster. Bloated, self-serving and impossibly expensive to run, it is causing untold misery to millions of students who sign up for a lifetime of debt, only to be sold a sub-standard and frequently useless education.
To say so out loud invites condemnation all round — from the establishment that preaches there can never be ‘too much education’, from the hundreds of thousands employed on the university gravy train and from the millions of students who have got themselves deep into debt for the sake of a degree.
But it must be said. And something has to be done to address this self- perpetuating insanity.
The figures are eye-watering. Over the past 30 years, our higher education (H.E.) network has tripled in size. In the late Eighties, around 770,000 people — just 15 per cent of school leavers — attended a university or polytechnic. Now there are more than 2.3 million H.E. students. That’s almost half of all school leavers.
Many of them arrived with a distinct lack of accurate information on the long-term benefits and drawbacks of a degree.
They’ve been told that the ‘graduate premium’ — the extra money a degree student can expect to earn over a lifetime — is £100,000. But that’s vague to the point of being downright dishonest.
The New Labour mantra of ‘education, education, education’ promised that the more people who gain a degree, the better off we’ll all be. And, yes, of course it’s hugely beneficial for many to have greater opportunities. But is Blair’s claim really true? Common sense and a mountain of evidence emphatically say otherwise.
The higher education system in Britain has swelled to a monstrous size and is no longer giving every student a bright future, it is claimed
What’s the point of having a degree if every other person has one, too? When the cost of a degree can be up to £60,000, can it ever make financial sense — especially when the great majority of students (nine out of ten, on some courses) will be unable to find a job that requires a university education?
Changes have to be made, and now. Unless university places are restricted, our great institutions will be reduced to nurseries for over-qualified baristas, gym trainers and call centre workers.
We can’t wait for the academics to come to their senses and start turning away undergraduates — their jobs depend on filling those places.
Thankfully, the new Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, seems determined to do something about it. This week, he gave a speech in which he argued that more pupils should think about shunning university for alternatives, such as high-quality apprenticeships.
He argued that youngsters, both working-class and middle-class, could benefit more from the Government’s new technical qualifications — known as ‘T-levels’ — which are being set up as an alternative to A-levels.
Mr Hinds said: ‘We need to consider whether in all cases a traditional degree at university is the right option, including those from more affluent backgrounds.’
What is remarkable is that it even needs to be said.
The fact is that many graduates now see minimal or even negative returns from their degrees.
Figures from the Office of National Statistics revealed recently that a third of graduates from some of the most popular degree courses in the country — including agriculture, psychology, English and creative design — are likely to be earning substantially less than the national average salary.
And that’s true not just immediately after leaving university, but five years later.
While the average UK salary is £27,600 a year, an ex-student with a degree in education, for example, is likely to be earning £23,700 — nearly £4,000 less.
Yet every parent wants their child to go to university.
That’s not an exaggeration: an Institute of Education study in 2010 found that 97 per cent of British mothers with children aged ten and under wished to see them go on to further education.
Universities are making thousands of unconditional offers – but this has been criticised as the higher education system swells
No one is willing to recognise the blatant disadvantages of the failing system . . . and it’s hardly surprising. Too many people have too much at stake.
There are more than 160 different universities and H.E. colleges in the UK today — many with multiple campuses — serving 2.32 million students, equivalent to the combined populations of Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Nottingham and Derby. They employ 400,000 people. Add those figures together, and they represent around 5 per cent of the UK’s entire population.
Tony Blair’s New Labour government pledged to send half of all school leavers to university. But this bloat has its beginnings much earlier, in the Sixties. The post-war population boom and the success of the grammar schools were producing far more highly able candidates than universities could accommodate.
A government report in 1963 recommended: ‘Courses should be available to all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.’
The author, Lord Robbins, could not have imagined what his well-meaning proposal would set in motion.
Today, more than 600,000 people apply for degrees every year. They surely cannot all be ‘qualified by ability and attainment’. The figures certainly suggest that they are not. In 2010, 51 per cent of university applicants had three grade Ds at A-level or worse. And there are places for them.
Some establishments, mainly the newer ones, have been so desperate to fill up their courses that they have made huge numbers of unconditional offers to sixth-formers, which give prospective students guaranteed university places regardless of the outcome of their A-levels.
Figures released last week by the Universities And Colleges Admissions Service show that universities made 67,915 unconditional offers this year — a staggering rise since the 2,985 given out in 2014.
Schoolteachers have voiced concern that these unconditional offers are being dished out ‘like candy’.
This removes the motivation to work, they say: ‘It affects performance,’ said one, who didn’t want to be named. ‘I would say that pupils with unconditional offers drop at least a grade.’
Others regard it as a form of corruption: ‘That looks very much like bribery . . . “Come here, because you don’t need any grades.” ’
The inevitable result is that, rather than attracting the finest young minds in the country, our universities are becoming breeding grounds for third-rate thought.
Once, they produced young people with inquisitive, independent, open, questioning intellects.
Now, the opposite is happening. The past decade has seen a worrying rise in the scale and intensity of self-censorship at universities, and an increasing demand for ‘safe spaces’ where students will be protected from any views that might disturb their intellectual, political and moral comfort zones.
Students are imposing gender segregation, banning national newspapers, demanding the removal of statues they find offensive and, as occurred last month at Manchester University, defacing and painting out the text of the poem If by Nobel prize-winner Rudyard Kipling because the author was perceived as a racist.The famous verse was replaced with some lines by black American feminist Maya Angelou.
Anything that could be construed as ‘cultural appropriation’ is stamped out, even down to the naming of foreign dishes in university canteens, and speakers as diverse as Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell and Nigel Farage have been denied a platform as a consequence of holding views deemed beyond the pale.
In 2016, the magazine Spiked, which monitors censorship on campus, found that 90 per cent of British universities now place restrictions on freedom of expression.
If that sounds unlike the heady, free-thinking days of yore, so is every other aspect of undergraduate life.
With accommodation scarce and expensive, and the prospect of future unemployment ever more real, the student existence is no longer a three-year party. Instead, it can be expensive, difficult and isolating — causing a steep rise in mental illness, even suicide in the most tragic cases.
Those who arrive with hopes of intense intellectual debate are quickly disillusioned: other students often lack interest and ability, and academics have no time to engage.
In many departments, courses are so crowded that it is now the norm for each student to have just one face-to-face meeting with a tutor per term.
There are also a large number of international students. It’s no surprise: — many universities are so eager to take students from abroad, and to charge them up to £100,000 in tuition fees over three years, that proficiency in English is no longer seen as necessary.
One mature student told a House Of Commons Select Committee, as long ago as 2009: ‘The varying ability of the students and their poor English meant things had to be pitched to the lowest common denominator.
‘One of my lecturers was being asked to slow his lectures down so that the significant number of Chinese students could follow what he was saying.
‘His speed was fine for native speakers, so I would assume that any slowing down will have an impact on the material covered.’
It all has an impact, of course. The inevitable result is that many graduates emerge with third-rate degrees in less than useful subjects from often third-rate institutions — and realise to their horror that what might be the most expensive purchase of their lives, apart from property (if they can ever buy a house), is worthless.
Graduates with useless degrees are so numerous that one in ten childminders has a university education. So does one in six call centre staff, and one in four air cabin crew and theme park attendants.
This can create bigger problems than mere frustration and bitterness. A former intensive care nurse, Rona Johnson, told the Mail in 2009: ‘Many graduate nurses feel they are too superior to clean floors and change beds.
Tony Blair’s New Labour government pledged to send half of all school leavers to university
‘Many less glamorous but vital elements of nursing have dropped off the syllabus, to be replaced with empty jargon about “holistic care” and “cultural sensitivities”.
‘As a result, the incidence of lethal hospital infections is going through the roof.’
The cost of all these useless degrees is almost beyond calculating. Each year students borrow over £12 billion. The total debt owed by UK graduates and undergrads is thought to be £100 billion.
As a result, an entire generation will spend the first 30 years of their lives struggling with debts they cannot repay. The average debt of a British graduate is £50,000, the highest in the developed world.
An income tax surcharge of up to nine per cent will be imposed on those who do manage to find well-paying jobs. This will prevent many from buying their own homes, getting married and starting families. Then, after 30 years, the remaining debt will be written off, at the cost of untold tens of billions to the taxpayer.
All this financial grief is quite pointless. It is the mathematics of the madhouse.
How do we end it? The most obvious first step is to gradually reduce the number of students — say, by five per cent per year for five years. This would reduce overcrowding on courses and increase the amount of contact between tutors and students.
How can this be achieved? Well, for one thing, a minimum grade tariff should be set for access to student loans. Currently, a school leaver with just one grade E at A-level can claim a place at a new university — though they are likely to struggle academically, and quite probably drop out.
Why should they automatically qualify for student finance when it’s so likely that the bill will eventually fall to the taxpayer?
If an applicant cannot demonstrate a minimum level of attainment and ability, why should there be an automatic expectation of funding? It’s worse than ludicrous that a student capable of nothing better than one E-grade should be burdened with £50,000 — it’s cruel.
(It also emerged this week that middle-class parents of students are being hit with a ‘stealth tax’ of up to £4,000 a year to pay for their child’s rent because rooms at some of the most popular universities cost far more than the maintenance loans available.)
Of COURSE, low achievers with a genuine desire to better their education should not be denied the chance of tertiary education. Pupils can fail at school for all sorts of reasons, not all their own fault.
University graduates are not necessarily earning more than those who did not take degree courses, it has been found
Those with weak grades could be offered part-time education, initially with one credit for a module at the Open University. By passing that module, they could earn access to more funding, and so on.
Student headcount could also be reduced by withdrawing or restricting funding for courses and universities with high drop-out rates and low levels of post-grad employment or earnings. At the very least, those courses should have to face a few pertinent questions.
Do they offer the country some sort of benefit, perhaps improving our cultural life, that justifies the burden on taxpayers — ordinary working people whose hard-earned cash goes to pay for abandoned studies?
Does the university make extra efforts to support mature students, who perhaps dropped out years or decades ago but who now want to tackle education in earnest?
Does it have an especially good record with people from disadvantaged backgrounds, those with disabilities or from communities in the UK’s remoter areas?
If the answer to all those is ‘No’, there’s an even more important question: why should we keep wasting public money? And there’s a simple answer: withdraw funding.
Above all, Britain has to shake off the delusion that half our school leavers are better off going to university. It’s a monstrous con.