Higher education finally attracted Tony Blair’s target of 50% of young people this year. But in the process, it has gained a set of interlinked problems. For one thing, it is turning out more graduates than we need: according to the ONS, only 57% of graduates are in high-skilled jobs (and this figure is declining). For another, it doesn’t adequately prepare young people for the working world: in 2017, a poll found that 75% employers considered recent graduates ‘unfit’ for employment.
On top of that, the soaring cost of tuition places a disproportionate debt burden on poorer students, who are less likely to have help with living expenses from family; they graduate £57,000 in debt, compared with the £42,000 debt of their better-off peers.
We need a new approach. One that will reduce the total number of graduates to better fit the UK’s employment requirements, while levelling the economic playing field between rich and poor and improving the quality, attitude and employability of new graduates.
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My radical policy would make university degrees fully government-funded, including living expenses, but make them contingent — for the entire UK student body — on prior successful completion of two years’ public service, either in the military or (for conscientious objectors) the NHS.
To make it work, we would need to widen the definition of military service beyond the frontline. After basic training, young people might drive minibuses on unprofitable public transport routes in rural locations, help fill in potholes, or provide Meals on Wheels to the elderly. It would be important to provide accommodation — as much for esprit de corps as to act as a social leveller — as well as food and a small stipend. There should be no impediment to public service on grounds of economic background.
For egalitarian reasons, it would be essential to ensure service tasks were assigned rather than chosen, as a precaution against the sharp-elbowed middle classes pulling strings to ensure their offspring received a cushy posting. And the scheme would need to offer roles compatible with mobility issues or other access requirements, for young people with disabilities.
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Why do it? As things stand, academics describe a student cohort that has been so over-praised by parents and teachers that they believe themselves automatically entitled to good grades. They approach education as paying customers, which feeds the entitlement, and drives grade inflation. Eliminating the consumer dynamic would be the first step in getting higher education back on track.
The MoD’s Army Leadership Code describes its values as “Courage, Discipline, Respect for Others, Integrity, Loyalty and Selfless Commitment”: two years spent internalising these values, while rising early and doing as you’re told would be good preparation for taking undergraduate life seriously. And a little practice in the art of temporarily subordinating personal desires in pursuit of the public good might not hurt either.
It would put some off applying. This is no bad thing. It would be a quick and easy way of reducing our surplus of graduates. Filtering out those young people without the character to complete two years’ public service would also raise the calibre of those graduates, ensuring they’re ready for the challenging world of work.
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The policy might also improve access to top universities for the less well-off, by deterring their more highly-strung and overparented middle-class peers from applying. Research has linked helicopter parenting — a distinctly middle- and upper-class behaviour — to increased neediness and lack of self-reliance in students. Requiring young people to commit two years to communitarian service would either reduce the number of fragile middle-class university students in favour of their more self-reliant, working-class peers — or else cure them of their fragility. Either outcome would be a net benefit to universities, which are currently experiencing a crisis of mental health issues as well as student entitlement.
The policy would doubtless cause outrage. But an inverted version of it already exists in the UK, in the form of the Army Undergraduate Bursary — which offers up to £24,000 paid throughout your degree, conditional on completing a subsequent year at Sandhurst and three years’ service as an officer. Similar schemes to the UK army bursary operate in many countries, including Turkey and the USA.
Objectors might also complain that housing, feeding and paying two million young people for an extra two years, on top of funding their university education, would be prohibitively expensive. But the outlay needed to facilitate two million young people performing public service would hardly be money wasted.
In any case, higher education is subsidised by the taxpayer even now to the tune of nearly £4bn. If we take into account the fact that only 17% of students are ever forecast to pay back their full student loan, this figure is much higher. The government is just keeping that £100bn of mostly bad debt off the books. Why not re-route it?
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At present, the system of tuition positions higher education as a transactional good, sold to student consumers on the basis that the ‘graduate premium’ outweighs the cost of loan repayment and as such is worth the investment. This approach has been justified on the basis that it has improved access. But so far, marketising higher education has neither improved the quality of degrees — quite the opposite — nor done much for young people’s employment prospects apart from raising the bar for the ‘graduate premium’.
Restoring full funding for university education in exchange for civic participation would level the socioeconomic playing field for applicants, and also reintroduce an older understanding of education not as a consumer good but as a public good that benefits all of us. It would also underline the fact that the purpose of higher education is not personal enrichment but to train the future leaders of society for a lifetime of service.
Those wishing to embark on a life of leadership and public service should see no hardship in performing some of this upfront, while those seeking only their own selfish advancement would be welcome to study overseas, at their own expense.