Varsity blues

19 August 2017

9:00 AM

19 August 2017

9:00 AM

A vast cohort of bright young things have secured their university places with A-level success this week. But things are not so rosy at the universities they will set off to join: after 25 years of rapid expansion, the sector is drifting away from both the core principles of education and the world of work. A few figures illustrate the problem: 2.3 million students are in higher education; 47 per cent of young people are in university; 51 per cent of A–level students will begin undergraduate study aged 18. And almost three quarters of them will get a 2:1 or a first. What exact distinction does a university degree confer?

True, the vast majority of students enter paid work or further research within six months of graduating. But, increasingly, employers complain that they are over-qualified but under-skilled, often struggling with the reality of mundane work that falls short of their intellectual expectations.

These are relatively recent phenomena. Before the Further and Higher Education Act of 1992, Britain had 46 universities — an organic medley of ancient masonry, red brick and plate glass. After several adjustments to the qualifying criteria, however, there are now 135. The consequences of this astounding growth haven’t yet been taken on board. Do changes in education and society explain it? Have employers caught up? Is this about knowledge and skills — or just money?

Let’s start with funding. For much of the 20th century, tuition and maintenance fees were met by the government. But the recent upsurge of student numbers has created an unsustainable cost. In 1998 a token tuition fee of £1,000 per year was brought in. In a few large steps this had risen to £9,000, and next month that figure will creep to £9,250. It will only head north from there. These fees are supposed to be variable, with only the best courses charging full whack; predictably, almost every university seeks the maximum sum, regardless of costs or quality. The average student now pays a total of £28,000 to his or her university. When expenses for accommodation, food and every-thing else are included, the total outlay can rise to £45,000-£80,000.

Is a degree worth this huge sum when set against the same number of years in salary earning employment? Well, student numbers are not falling, but that is no clear response. Much is made of the ‘graduate premium’, since the median starting salary for graduates (£32,000) is indeed £10,000 higher than for those without a degree. But the Sutton Trust found in 2015 that the lifetime earnings of someone who takes a higher apprenticeship will outstrip those of the average graduate from a university not in the Russell Group (the confederacy of 24 leading institutions).

Given their growing need for money as government funding drops, universities will not contemplate reducing their fees. Instead, many institutions (though not their academic staff) avidly recruit overseas students, for whom tuition fees commonly rise above £30,000 per annum. Since these undergraduates are happy to pay handsomely for a good degree with British branding, both sides are content. Some 150,000 non-EU students are taking their first degrees in Britain, an increase of more than 70 per cent on a decade ago; the numbers of those from China and the Middle East have doubled. Now almost a quarter of teaching income derives from non-EU fees. An international student profile is a good thing, so long as it is a natural reflection of intellectual excellence. But we should not be chasing foreign money more than foreign minds.

This increased income from tuition fees does not reach students or academic staff (the majority of university staff are non–academic). Jo Johnson, the universities minister, is also right to talk of ‘legitimate concern’ about vice-chancellors’ salaries: it is grotesque that the starting wage for Russell Group university lecturers is less than a twelfth of what the University of Bath’s vice-chancellor is paid (£451,000), especially when the university pension system has an estimated deficit of £12 billion.

Most public intellectuals are strangely quiet on these matters. Official bodies (Universities UK, the Russell Group itself) have too much skin in the game to talk openly; governments have been floundering since Tony Blair’s guesswork that half of young people should go to university. But fundamental questions are going unanswered. What do we want universities to achieve, and who should pay for it? All agree that research is the beating heart of university life. Two thirds of research income still comes from the taxpayer; post-Brexit, that share should rise. Three quarters of UK research has been ranked as ‘world-leading’ or ‘inter-nationally excellent’. In major international rankings, three or four UK universities typically make the top ten. Inspired by such successes, the government wants to make teaching income equally competitive.

The Higher Education and Research Act, passed in April, outlines plans to expand the number of universities, and eventually allow those with the best teaching to raise fees further in an attempt to increase salaries. The Teaching Excellence Framework awards gold, silver or bronze rankings to institutions for ‘teaching quality, learning environment, student outcomes and learning gain’. In principle, this crude gradation appears sound. In practice, its inappropriate tests of teaching ‘success’ encourage the sector to turn away from its raison d’être — challenging and pushing the intellectually ambitious. Consider a particularly difficult course which a proportion of students regularly fail to complete and where high marks are (with good reason) relatively rare. It will score poorly for student satisfaction and teaching success, so an important course will wave goodbye to its funding.

Subjecting universities to market forces with such flaky criteria would cause irreparable damage. There are already widespread reports of university authorities pressurising academics to give better marks, thereby minimising dropout rates and guaranteeing good graduation figures. There is grade inflation, no question — in five years the proportion of firsts has risen from 17 per cent to almost 24 per cent. As a university academic, I can tell you first-hand that the quality of students and their teachers has not undergone a revolution in that period.

The true aims of education are being obscured by a philistinic focus on future employment, student satisfaction and short-termist calculations of ‘value for money’. But higher education should not be a commodity bought and sold; it should challenge and provoke students independently of the demands of business and trade.

The First Secretary of State, Damian Green, says he wants a ‘national conversation’ on tuition fees. Yes please. Not the blathering nonsense of Jeremy Corbyn, whose pledge to abolish fees bought many a young vote (for a £28,000 bung) before it crumbled on discovery of the awful cost. We must decide what we want our universities to be and to do.

Universities are now competing for students, not vice versa. Those in the Russell Group had more than 4,000 courses with vacancies earlier this week. These will not be filled unless grade requirements are dropped. Some institutions frenziedly peddle incentives such as unconditional offers. This is wrong. University education needs once again to be an elite option. And ‘elite’ should not be a dirty word: selection is at the heart of undergraduate admissions, graduate research and academic employment, just as it determines all job applications. Universities that emerge, after due scrutiny, to be elite in neither teaching nor research should be restricted to offering degree courses of one or two years with the workplace squarely in view; those that cannot manage this should lose the right to award degrees altogether. As fewer people opt for full-length (and full-cost) courses, institutions can specialise more in chosen fields of excellence.

The government must subsidise university teaching as well as research. If it wishes to support some subjects more than others, it should be allowed to make that case. With fewer full-length courses on offer, it could afford to help those who deserve it most. The essential principle must hold that, regardless of background or financial circum-stances, the brightest students are not prevented from achieving university success.

Universities, as not-for-profit charities, should be compelled to direct two thirds of expenditure to teaching and research, and to offer their own loans to successful applicants. They could also choose to vary costs according to the course or an applicant’s means. Maintenance bursaries, funded in part by high international fees, would be particularly important, and should be readily available for the ‘squeezed middle’ (largely hard-working families; not the very poor or the well-to-do middle class).

With fewer young people in higher education, more could freely enter employment, where they are increasingly needed. Employers should seize this opportunity and invest in industry-focused training. Government money should be set aside to support this process for school leavers at 18. By contrast, those who enter work after a full university degree should have earned their stripes by dealing with difficult and challenging problems. Whatever their degree, they should leave university as attractive prospects for employers who need precise knowledge and/or raw brainpower. Higher earnings should reflect their value to the country and justify the earlier expenditure.

Instead, we are frittering away much of the UK university sector’s hard-won value. More troublingly, we are selling many of our younger generation short.

Tibor Fischer and Jake Hurfurt discuss the problem with universities on the Spectator Podcast.

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