August 8, 2022 - 10:45am

Rishi Sunak has promised a crack down on “low value” degrees. If he becomes Prime Minister, then courses offered by universities will be assessed on measurable outcomes like drop-out rates and the earning potential of graduates. Presumably those degrees that fail the test will be defunded. 

The reaction of the Twittering classes was as swift as it was predictable. For instance, Alex von Tunzelmann thinks it “a shame” that someone with Sunak’s “prestigious education” did not learn “the extremely obvious lesson that education may have benefits that go beyond the merely financial.”

Maybe education doesn’t work on wicked Tories — because according to Michael Moran the people “running this country” are a “gang of yahoos”. Moran goes on to suggest that one can “imagine Sunak telling a young Paul McCartney there’s no point messing around on the piano & to become an accountant.” Except that Macca didn’t need a degree-level qualification to become a Beatle — unlike, say, someone studying to be a fully-qualified accountant. 

Nevertheless, the idea that the higher education system should be held to a value-for-money standard is condemned as an attack on civilisation itself. “We are human beings, not just names on a payslip,” as Robert Saunders puts it. Chris Dillow complains that “Some Tories… used to present themselves as defenders of high culture against philistines. Now, Tories are themselves the philistines.” Meanwhile, Richard Murphy goes full-on apocalyptic: “Sunak learned the price of everything and nothing about value at Oxford. Late stage capitalism is all about destroying society.”

Really? One can’t help but notice that the neoliberal era (i.e. capitalism since Thatcher and Reagan) has been characterised by a massive expansion of higher education. And thanks to digital technologies — another product of “late stage capitalism” — humanity has never had such widespread access to the arts and sciences. 

When it comes to sources of cultural enrichment, we’ve never had it so good. What we are short of, however, are essential workers. Today, the Health Secretary, Stephen Barclay, has warned about the dearth of qualified personnel in the NHS. He’s instituted an overseas recruitment drive to find the healthcare workers we need in time for the coming winter. But that begs the question as to why we’re not training enough doctors, dentists and nurses in this country. 

Nor are skills shortages limited to the public sector. Many businesses are also short of skilled workers — from truck drivers to computer programmers. 

As fans of scholarship, it’s a shame that the Sunak-bashers didn’t study their sources more carefully. For a start, he isn’t calling for courses to be assessed on financial outcomes alone, he also emphasises social value. Nor is he advocating the abolition of the humanities or anything remotely so barbarous. All that he’s called for is a rebalancing that takes into account the needs of the nation.  

Having expanded its intake from less than 10% to half the population, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect the tertiary education system to provide the country with enough workers to keep the economy moving and our public services from collapsing. Because those things too are civilisation. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.