by David Goodhart
Tuesday, 5
April 2022
Analysis
11:46

Fewer university students would be a good thing

Traditional degree courses will be a shrinking part of post-school education
by David Goodhart
How many of these Durham University students are getting value for money?

At last a minister has said it publicly. Fewer undergraduates in 10 years time would be “a good thing”. Skills minister Alex Burghart is clearly no enemy of higher education in principle — he has a Phd in Anglo-Saxon history and taught at both Kings in London and Leicester universities — but his remarks at a talk at the think tank Policy Exchange yesterday were strikingly realistic:

I taught for a number of years in some wonderful universities… But it was clear not all the students wanted to be there. A number were there by default, because their parents wanted them to be there. Or because they felt they had no other ladders to a good career.
- Skills minister Alex Burghart

The university lobby likes to characterise such talk as privileged people “kicking away the ladder” but the truth is that the ladder is leading nowhere for a substantial minority of undergraduates doing second rate courses for which there is no labour market demand.

For some decades up to the 1980s Britain under-supplied higher education and now it is oversupplying it, while technical education has been allowed to wither. Moreover, it is oversupplying a particularly narrow “classical” kind of full-time, academic-generalist, three year degree course, mainly residential and aimed predominantly at 18 year-olds funded by student loans.

This has been very expensive for the taxpayer, with only about half of fees being repaid, with no evidence of the promised improvements to productivity or social mobility. It has caused the number of mature students and part-time study to fall off a cliff, and as parents and now employers increasingly realise it is also sub-optimal for a substantial minority of graduates themselves, one third of whom are not in graduate jobs 10 years after graduating.

In the short-term numbers going to university will continue to rise — partly because schools are mainly judged on their success in sending pupils into higher education (HE) and because almost 40% of jobs are now graduate only (many quite unnecessarily so).

But the tanker is starting to turn. Thanks to the growth of degree apprenticeships, the planned lifelong loan entitlement for all forms of post-school education and training, and some of the former polytechnics moving into higher technical courses below degree level, we are moving towards a universal tertiary education offer in which the classical full-time university degree plays a smaller role.

Add to this the possibilities of online HE made clear by the pandemic. Everyone with the ability and the intellectual curiosity should be encouraged to expand their minds at university, using a mix of online and in-person study, and not necessarily at age 18. Many more should go in their late 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, after a period of working.

Recent governments can claim some credit for putting the brakes on the over-expansion of HE but there is still much work to be done in making the alternatives more attractive, especially for school leavers. Only about 8% of school leavers go directly into apprenticeships. The system is particularly difficult to navigate for smaller companies which are over-represented in the areas the Government is trying to level up. T levels, the vocational alternative to A levels, have made a shaky start.

The public sector should set a better example in its apprenticeship offer and post-Brexit it should now be possible for state procurement policy to require companies to hire apprentices — perhaps one for Jacob Rees-Mogg to look at in his role as Brexit benefits minister?

Meanwhile, employers complain about skill shortages, especially in construction and IT, made worse by the end of free movement, but still have a poor record of investing in training. The Further Education colleges that ministers now heap praise upon remain financially fragile and struggle to recruit staff when schools can pay significantly higher starting salaries.

Over the next decade we will see a much more varied post-school education and training menu with university less of an automatic choice even for middle-class children whose parents have degrees. But the devilish detail in the provision of decent vocational and technical training needs consistent focus — let’s hope that Alex Burghart stays in his job for more than a few months.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
25 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
4 months ago

Been saying this for years. The lefties have been using the universities as engines of social engineering for decades, forcing them on people whe didn’t want them and weren’t intellectually suited to them. In the process they’ve destroyed the universities as institutes of thought and collapsed all security of tenure in the trades and vocations for people who would have been perfectly happy earning a living as bus drivers and mechanics. At this point, you go to university for four years to get stupid and then work in a call centre.

Raymond Inauen
Raymond Inauen
4 months ago

I don’t think this was a leftist thing. Universities were in decline in the 1960s and a new campaign was launched to increase the number of university students by promoting the idea that people with degrees didn’t have to get their hands dirty and would also earn more money. There is a famous poster from that time showing someone in a greasy overalls with dirty hands and a university student in a graduation uniform with a diploma and clean hands. This started a trend that was advertised in high schools and to parents as the best course of action for their children’s future. I remember it well because this trend was also evident in our high school. When I came home, my parents would stress that I had a great future as a dentist or a doctor, to name a few possibilities. I was not cut out for these professions and my skills were more creative and less focused on these fields. This has led to many countries focusing on the service sector and neglecting all other skills, and trade schools in general have become less important. All these jobs have been shifted to third world countries (like China) that have cheap and abundant labour ready to work in low-paid jobs to escape poverty. Now there is a resurgence of interest in skilled labour in other sectors because the labour market in the service sector is so dried up or simply oversaturated that the next generation may really go in a different direction. Of course, this is not easy, because a generation of parents is still infected with the university virus. Time will tell if the tides are changing.

Howard Ahmanson
Howard Ahmanson
4 months ago
Reply to  Raymond Inauen

Industrial manufacturing may move to China, but plumbers and electricians can’t. As the Australians know, “tradies “ make good money.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
4 months ago

The relentless march of cultural marxism (Critical Theory) through the institutions!

Matt M
Matt M
4 months ago

Universities should be made to own their loan-books. If their graduates cannot earn enough to pay back their student loans, then the institution should have its government funding reduced by the same amount that the taxpayer has had to find to fill the gap.
Pretty soon the universities will get the message that offering three year humanities courses to intellectually mediocre 18 year olds leads to them losing money, not making it. The -ology courses will dry up and the school leavers can do skills training, apprenticeships or just start work instead.

Bill W
Bill W
4 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Universities should be made to own their loan-books. : absolutely spot. I have been thinking the same for some time.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
4 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

It’s appalling that common citizens – taxpayers – have no control or say in what how these behemoths are operating and how they are being subsidized by tax dollars. We’ve lost the plot long ago and it’s not certain this educational system will come to heel. A good first step in the USA would be to eliminate The Department of Education at the federal level, as it’s not clear it serves a purpose.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
4 months ago

undergraduates doing second rate courses for which there is no labour market demand”

No, there shouldn’t be second rate courses anywhere, though of course there always will be … But I’m a bit unsure about the ‘market demand’ argument. For two reasons, one being that it’s not so easy to predict what demand will be – a market can quickly be created where there wasn’t one before. For example we had anthropology courses when there weren’t many jobs for anthropologists, but it seemed a worthwhile discipline, then we had a booming mining industry blowing up Aboriginal cultural history and it was decided that we needed anthropologists to check out any proposals for mining anything, anywhere. Where do you find anthropologists if you don’t have that infrastructure already in the universities; you can’t quickly whip up anthropologists to meet the market demand.

The other reason is that these disciplines help us learn about ourselves. There may not be a huge market for music graduates, but do we want a society where only pop music is heard? The universities provide paid employment, and a stimulating environment, for performers & composers, while at the same time introducing lots of students to musical experiences and knowledge they wouldn’t otherwise encounter, at an impressionable age. I heard terrific free lunchtime concerts put on by the music department staff when I was at uni – something I guess they still do.

Of course it’s important to educate young people for careers, technical and otherwise, but let’s not forget that a civilisation is more than a market, and ideally, broadening students’ minds should go along with their post-school education

Alastair Herd
Alastair Herd
4 months ago

I mean, that’s all well and good. But as someone who graduated in the last few years, looking back on it as an experience there were a very large number of people just there to pad out their lives/party. They had no real interested in the subject they had chosen, and it had no real market value (half my 1st year corridor were doing Film Studies).
Almost all those kinds of students I know ended up with some kind of mental health issue, because spending lots of time, not doing much, with no goal in mind, isn’t actually very good for you.
Plenty of people would actually benefit from just getting straight into a job and experiencing the refreshing world of real life.
Also saves on your tax bill!

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
4 months ago
Reply to  Alastair Herd

I see what you mean. Although I had a scholarship, it only paid fees, so I had to work my way through university, and it is a ‘grounding’ experience. Mind you, I did do a few units that I didn’t need for a degree, I just did them because they looked interesting, and one of them was Film Studies! Not only interesting, and practical (we had to make short films – in the pre-digital early 70s) it eventually came in handy when I worked on cataloguing the state’s film collection. In this age of video those film students should find something to do. Similarly, I did some Japanese units and years later when the Japanese embassy donated an excellent set of maps of Japan to the library, I was able to drag out my Japanese dictionary and catalogue them.

AC Harper
AC Harper
4 months ago

Tony Blair (whatever his intentions) played a blinder. By increasing the number of students he decreased the numbers of the unemployed (an important figure back then). But what made it a masterstroke was that he got the students to pay for it .

jill dowling
jill dowling
4 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

But many of them don’t end up earning enough to repay their loans so it’s lose lose all around.

Michael K
Michael K
4 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

That reminds me of a few jokes:
What’s the difference between a student and a homeless person?
-> The student has to boil the noodles himself.
What’s the difference between a student and an alcoholic?
-> The parents are proud of the student.
What’s the difference between a student and an unemployed person?
-> Up to ten years.

Last edited 4 months ago by Michael K
N Forster
N Forster
4 months ago

So many uni courses seem to be more interested in indoctrinating students than educating them. My own daughter was studying illustration. Her reading list was concerned not with art but Marxism. From conversations with her peers and their parents, much the same can be said for many courses in English, History, and much of the Humanities.
We’ve created a blend of “elite” overproduction and political indoctrination, indoctrination concerned with inducing self hate and hatred of society.
At the same time the UK has spent much of the last 20 years outsourcing trade training to Eastern Europe and medical training even further afield. We have benefited from their investment in trade training whilst neglecting our our own. Why go to the expense of training an apprentice when you could get a fully trained worker from Poland for less than a British worker?
We teach our own children to be “activists” rather than citizens, and rely on other countries to supply people to do the actual work needed. It is an utterly foolish position to be in. And it is by no means irreversible.
The country and our young would benefit greatly from giving UK universities a good pruning.

Last edited 4 months ago by N Forster
John Aronsson
John Aronsson
4 months ago

The over production of elites has long been recognized to be a common element of every great revolution since 1776 and possibly since 1642.
Reasonably bright, disappointed, unemployed and indebted young adults have always been the fighting cadre in the major revolutions.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
4 months ago
Reply to  John Aronsson

Yes, and their first targets were usually the hardworking middle-classes.

Last edited 4 months ago by Julian Farrows
Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
4 months ago

On the Article
I can’t remember where I read/heard this, but I recall a claim that in absolute numbers, fewer students are studying STEM today than did in the early nineties before the parabolic increase in numbers going on to further education.
This is a damning indictment of Blair’s claim of creating a higher tech knowledge based economy. Not that there is much reason to believe his claims anymore.

Off the Article
Among the issues with comments, including more deleted for no good reason from yesterday’s leader, the Post section appears to be broken. Clicking on the post hyperlink, we get articles posted up to Friday, but nothing since.

polidori redux
polidori redux
4 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

It has got to the stage where I automatically make a copy of my posts to cater for, what seems to be, arbitrary deletions. I feel slightly uncomfortable doing this: It isn’t as if you will suffer harm by not reading my contributions. But on the other hand, it is bluddy annoying.

Henry Haslam
Henry Haslam
4 months ago

It would be good to see more publicity given to the rewarding and enjoyable jobs and careers that don’t require a degree.
It would also be good to see more industries and employers that offered jobs to non-graduates. To require a degree for jobs that do not actually require academic knowledge or proficiency can drive away some good potential candidates. Apprenticeships and other forms of on-the-job training could be a better use of resources.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
4 months ago

Today, universities & colleges in the USA are ‘Big Business’ financed by alum and institutional donations and backed up by federal government subsidization of student loans. They seemingly have little or nothing to do with education only in that that’s what they are selling. There’s no sense if the importance of the intellect or even of basic learning. The social indoctrination is out there and clear for all to see. They seemingly have no interest in what is good for the ‘common good’ such as weighing in on the appropriate levels of students to be educated/indoctrinated. Their view is the more the merrier, the more profitable. They panic when they see applications and enrollments decline. We’re far off the path of the New England Transcendentalists, like Thoreau, Emerson or the great of the Enlightenment (Hume comes to mind)…people who revered knowledge and growth.

Last edited 4 months ago by Cathy Carron
William Shaw
William Shaw
4 months ago

It’s difficult to imagine more useless degrees than Gender Studies and Women’s Studies.
However, I’m not proposing we eliminate them. If young women want to take on debt in order to present themselves as potential employees to avoid then let them.
It makes it easier for employers to weed out the ones to avoid.

George Knight
George Knight
4 months ago

Fully agree, but feel that it is not only the Universities that need attention. School VI forms are geared to ‘A’ levels which were designed by University Dons to create more Dons. It would be preferable too if the International Baccalaureate was used instead of A levels as it provides a broader based education.

Dapple Grey
Dapple Grey
4 months ago

You can say that again. I begged my children not to go to university as neither are interested in academic study, but they insisted as most of their friends were going.
What a waste of time and money – particularly Newcastle (though they did enjoy themselves and make friends).

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
4 months ago
Reply to  Dapple Grey

A waste? Time will tell … if they meet and pair up with a budding doctor, dentist, engineer etc. it may have been the perfect finishing school between secondary education and ‘real life’.

Hugh Eveleigh
Hugh Eveleigh
4 months ago

One of PM Blair’s little changes I believe. It is of no use to society to have something around 50% of young people attending universities – many at dubiously academic institutions teaching subjects that are of even more dubious worth.