by Peter Franklin
Monday, 8
August 2022
Debate
10:45

Rishi Sunak is right about worthless university degrees

Don't blame the former Chancellor for pointing out the obvious
by Peter Franklin
Credit: Getty

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. 

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Harry Johnston
Harry Johnston
1 month ago

An inconvenient truth that practically all of our greatest pop’n’rock artists didn’t go to uni and that the post 92 meat grinder money making universities don’t give a toss about the students as long as the numbers are high, and in fact many students are thrown on the scrap heap

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 month ago
Reply to  Harry Johnston

It has been obvious for some years that higher education in the UK and the US is primarily – and often solely – about money.

Iris C
Iris C
1 month ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

If you come out of university with a degree that does not gain you employment, you are forced to take any job available, however menial, Your schoolmates, on the other hand, have had three years’ experience in the workplace and so are at an advantage.
It is in the best interest of the students that courses are assessed and students are aware of the job opportunities that are available for graduates with only limited academic ability..

Last edited 1 month ago by Iris C
Jerry Mee-Crowbin
Jerry Mee-Crowbin
1 month ago
Reply to  Iris C

You are quite right Iris. In fact I’m reminded of the old joke ‘What do you say to a media studies/social sciences graduate? – A big mac and fries please.’

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago
Reply to  Harry Johnston

entrepreneurs who create the wealth that employs graduates more often than not, did not go to university… as has always been the case.. It is often just a wage slaves academy!

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 month ago

It’s very simple. Make universities responsible for student loans. That will encourage them to produce employable graduates. Close any university with a dropout rate of over 20%.

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 month ago

Carpenters, Plumbers, Electricians, Engineers, Transport Professionals, etc. Some need a degree, some need an apprenticeship, some need on-the-job training or vocational training. Far better than a degree in ” ” Studies.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
1 month ago

I keep saying that there is nothing useless or non-vocational about a humanities degree per se. I read history at university, and I would defend that discipline against all-comers as being a training in considering evidence, establishing the relevant facts, and drawing conclusions, i.e. a training in reasoning, which is essential for any profession and especially for management and leadership roles. A high-level training in, say, mathematics, certainly imparts logical rigour and attention to detail, but it has little to do with the more intangible, but vital, skill of good judgement.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

I agree, Jonathan, a good humanities degree from a good university is a valuable thing and usually leads to enhanced earning potential. Unfortunately, the reckless expansion of the sector has resulted in a profusion of graduates with second class degrees from third rate universities. This helps no-one, except of course the ridiculously well remunerated Vice Chancellors.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

I believe it was Vince Lombardi who corrected the saying “practice makes perfect” to “perfect practice makes perfect”. If you are studying any subject to a high level, you will be developing valuable skills. If you are not, you may merely be practicing errors. In technical degrees the errors are immediately obvious and cannot be hidden.
I think you need both good judgement and some attention to detail (from your remarks I’m quite sure you have both).
However, there is a belief in this country (and the US and many others) that you do not need technical competence or experience in the relevant industry to be a good manager or leader – i.e. that “management” is a generic discipline that is portable across industries. I strongly believe this to be false and my experience in technology businesses shows that those which succeed and survive are the ones whos leaders have both deep domain (technical) skills and experience with leadership and management skills.
My experience is that the number of people with both exceptional technical and leadership and management skills is very small. But these are the people you certainly need these days.

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 month ago

I did a “useless” English degree. Invaluable for my subsequent career as a corporate lawyer.
Here is my old blog on the “university swindle”:
https://universityswindle.blogspot.com/

Rod Hine
Rod Hine
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

Cracking good blog!

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

A very good blog, Frank, and spot-on with regard to our need for respected, high quality technical/vocational education, and on the fact that our universities are full of young people with no real interest in their studies, who also provide a depressing milieu for those fellow-students – and there are plenty – who DO have that interest. (And I speak as a former university lecturer). My only quibble might be regarding the German situation. Having just spent a week with two Germans, one of whom spent some time teaching in a technical school, I was made aware that lack of interest and motivation has also become prevalent amongst many young Germans in such schools.

William Cameron
William Cameron
1 month ago

Reopen polytechnics teaching career subjects at night school and day release

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 month ago

Sadly this educational fiasco can firmly blamed on John Major Esq, and his 1992 ‘Further & Higher Education Act’, and not on the wretched Tony Blair, as is so often assumed.
The damage done is probably terminal.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 month ago

I think it began even earlier. It was in the late 1980s when I first noticed that even the dimmest offspring of the middle classes were going to university, and referring to it as ‘uni’.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

It must have some relation to the destruction of the Tripartite education system. Once everyone went to comprehensives then they must all go to university. All that is needed is the willingness to drop academic standards and to drive up public and private debt.

Will Will
Will Will
1 month ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

The late 80s was when norm referenced marking was ditched,

Adam McDermont
Adam McDermont
1 month ago

The problem is exacerbated by the quasi religious desire to overrepresent certain groups at what were great institutions.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago

I would put forward the view that allowing polytechnics to become universities made little difference as they had long forgotten their remit of providing technical education and training with a vocational focus and had been churning out graduates in Marxist drivel for years. But you may have a point that Blair only ramped this up.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
1 month ago

You are right to highlight John Major’s policies as starting the rot. It was under his premiership that the polytechnics, which provided excellent vocational training programmes and educational qualifications, including degrees, were converted into universities, many if not most of which became second rate and remain so to this day. Tony Blair substantially worsened the situation by decreeing that 50% of school leavers should attend university – an approach enthusiastically adhered to by David Cameron, who likewise tripped out on diversity and inclusion rather than academic prowess. Both Blair and Cameron introduced tuition fees, which have crippled many graduates with debts for degrees that they struggle to pay off in low paid job just above the threshold for non-payment.

Charles Lewis
Charles Lewis
1 month ago

We should not knock the uni’s. They do a remarkable job on their inmates, training them in the virtues of being hyper-sensitive non-resilient weaklngs, quick to take offence at almost anything, seeing micro-aggressions in the blink of an eye (someone else’s), for ever feeling ‘unsafe’, requiring an endless stream of trigger-warnings (from Beowulf through Lear — King , but probably Edward as well –to Pride and Prejudice and onward), shutting out debate, by violence if necessary, and so forth — and that is not to mention vilifying as much of our history as imagination can manage, and hating our country, all accompanied by narcissistic self-flagellation for white, or any other, guilt.
Do you want your, or anyone else’s, child to emerge from uni in that state, part of a failed generation?

Adam McDermont
Adam McDermont
1 month ago

A reevaluation of the university system is long overdue. Humanities degrees have a place. Society should always be producing people who write well. I totally agree that where possible all degrees should entail a wage earning element as part of a condition for admission. I hope Sunak seeks to defund all these wacky lefty courses that exist now. I doubt this will happen however.
The Heritage Site | Adam McDermont | Substack

Last edited 1 month ago by Adam McDermont
Norman Powers
Norman Powers
1 month ago

You can defund the humanities at the government level without abolishing them. Plenty of people who do stuff in the humanities make their living by selling books, talks, and obviously, university courses. The “barbarous” idea that without government funding the humanities would disappear seems to imply that nobody cares about them and have to be forced to fund them, which if true, is by itself an excellent reason to defund them.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 month ago

There is a simple way round all this – if you want to do a Humanities degree, then before you can do that, you do a year min three max, in the workplace, anywhere in the country, paid min wage, but with government provided student dorm style subsidised accommodation. Govt responsible for placing you, but system similar to UCAS. Businessess who take on young people at 18 in this way to get tax breaks. No such requirement on STEM degrees, for the simple reason that you would not want to lose any of the most creative STEM period in young people, which starts at around 18.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Wouldn’t it be easier to insist that Humanities and Social Sciences courses require 3 As at Alevel, one of which must be maths. Those that don’t are not eligible for Student Loans.

STEM and vocational courses and apprenticeships are funded as now.

The objective should be that only the very brightest and most committed do history or psychology etc and these courses make up 5-10% of university placements.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

Crikey, the Maths stipulation would rule out literally everyone wanting to take a Humanities or Social Sciences degree. Of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 month ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Latin in preference to Maths perhaps?

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago

Nice idea

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 month ago

That would certainly have suited me. I was good at Latin, whereas my maths stopped when confronted with long division, aged nine.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 month ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

There are quite a lot of people from the humanities side of things who have contributed greatly to society but were crappy at maths.

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

I like the idea of a higher grades requirement, but 3 As seems harsh. Perhaps allow leeway for a B or even a C if you get an A* somewhere else.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek but the grade requirement should be raised and the ratio of these courses to STEM/ vocational should be 1 in 10.

I also like the idea of people having to have a “difficult” A Level too – maths or Latin would be acceptable.

The current option of mediocre A Levels in psychology, English and media studies and then a 2:2 in sociology at the University of Nowhere is a waste of the student’s time and the taxpayer’s money.

Last edited 1 month ago by Matt M
Saul D
Saul D
1 month ago
Reply to  Prashant Kotak

Minimum university entrance requirement: one of: one A-level in a STEM subject, a qualification in a trade with work experience, a year in the armed forces or on a ward on the NHS, or a foreign language to B2 level. (I started the comment as a joke, then realised there might be something in it)

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 month ago
Reply to  Saul D

I agree there might be something to it.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

The over-expansion of higher education in the UK is turning the country into what I would call a “Dunning-Krugerland” – i.e. a society with a huge number of people who are educated just enough to believe they are experts, but not sufficiently to realise they are not. Social media makes this painfully visible.
You can see the mediocrity and ignorance all around you. The quality of analysis, debate and discussion in newspapers, TV and radio is vastly inferior to the 1970s and 1980s. “Presenters” constantly interrupt and try to make it all about them and “build their brand”. No politician is allowed to talk for more than one or two minutes without some trite question or interruption. Almost all questions are leading ones. Original and challenging ideas are condemned out of hand.
It is time that universities suffered financial penalties if the graduates they produce are not up to scratch. Those that aren’t good enough need to close.
There is a real – and huge – opportunity cost in tieing up people and resources in wasteful activities. But even more so by mis-educating people – persuade me that the majority of today’s “protestors” and “campaigners” – the ones gluing themselves to roads – aren’t or negative value to society as a whole.
Then add in the massive student loan debt default being built up which will fall back on the taxpayer.
Blair may be gone, but the evil he engendered lives on.

Rod Hine
Rod Hine
1 month ago

From 2000 to 2016 I taught part-time at University of Bradford, Yorkshire UK. I saw the quality of the intake gradually go down during that time. Similarly, the motivation and enthusiasm of the students began to wane – it was totally pointless for at least a third of the students I reckon. And that was in engineering! Eventually the department was wound up and remaining staff redeployed. It was a standing joke that while the official entry requirement was 2 Bs, we would accept any student with 2 Ds who didn’t need life support systems. Just a failing industry doing the “bums on seats” exercise to justify it’s existence. The best teaching I ever did was three years (1973-1976) at the Kenya Polytechnic where the students were keen as mustard to learn real skills for their jobs in telecomms and electronics.

Richard Barnes
Richard Barnes
1 month ago

The expansion of tertiary education was a genius move by Tony Blair. Get young people to take out huge loans to pay to remove themselves from the youth unemployment figures, at the same time creating a huge number of jobs for lecturers, most of whom would vote Labour. Brilliant.
Whether the degrees themselves would be useful for those taking them was beside the point.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago

I utterly loathed every second of Kings College London… nearly as much as my fellows who actually wanted to be ‘ slisters’.. I did not finish the law.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 month ago

I’d welcome some kind of action around worthless degrees, but the idea that their worth would be decided on the basis of what kind of income the degree leads to is crazy.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  M. Jamieson

Then what is your alternative ? How would you measure “worthless” ?

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

As a former full-time lecturer (second career after a lifetime in senior/top management) in a UK university business school and a BA graduate in English (from a world class university in its day), I feel I have some basis for adding to the discussion. Some points for consideration:

  • Humanities degrees, especially those in the traditional areas like English, History, Geography, modern languages, etc, are valuable – provided they are quality programmes that engender critical thinking that will be of great value in later life in the workplace. Degrees that are job/career specific like medicine, law, engineering, etc. are self-evidently valuable, but do not necessarily produce critical thinkers in every case. Social sciences (so called) are where the bulk of the problem lies in universities. Programmes such as gender studies, women’s studies, queer studies. peace studies, diversity studies, race studies, gay studies, etc. may not always be built on solid academic standards and principles and have mushroomed since the Blair area. These have hugely altered the direction of travel of western democracies politically, culturally, economically and socially, generally not for the better.
  • Cease government funding of universities that fail to demonstrate robust academic standards (changes in the proportion of first and upper-second degree awards is one potential indicator of slack vs robust standards of assessment, for example. The number of programmes or modules that do not have examinations in their assessment mix is another, as is the incidence of academic malpractice).
  • Cease or limit government funding for universities that fail assiduously to promote, respect and adhere to the principles of free speech and independent thinking.
  • Make universities individually responsible for administering loans to their own students, without recourse to the taxpayer when their graduates fail to find gainful employment using their degrees. This would result in self-regulation and restraint by universities with regard to the nature and number of degree programmes in relation to the domestic employment market for graduates.
  • Set national minimum A-level standards for school-leaver entry into universities below which universities are not permitted to recruit domestic students.
  • Reinstate the system of polytechnics to provide for technical/vocational higher education as distinct from the traditional academic orientation of universities, thereby catering for school-leavers who do not satisfy the minimum A-level standards for universities, but who are well suited by personal orientation and school certification to pursue qualifications of a more vocational nature, closely allied to the needs of industry.
  • Recruitment of foreign undergraduates should be limited only to those who pass nationally set and marked examinations in written and spoken English (my university business school recruited many Chinese students, some of whom were unable to write, read or speak English. In one-to-one tutorials some of my Chinese students translated my spoken English using their smartphones, then used these gadgets to translate their verbal responses in Chinese back into English. Some of them could not write intelligible English. And yet they were admitted onto degree programmes over three years, and the majority graduated, with pressure from management on teaching staff not to fail them. The overseas student fees were more important than academic standards!).
  • Change the rampant managerialism that drives university policy, not least the payment of massive salaries to Vice-Chancellors and other senior managers; remove the emphasis on pandering to ‘student satisfaction’ to maximise income, rather than offering students academic excellence and expecting them to meet these institutional requirements; and for students thereby to view their admission as a privilege, not a 21st Century human right.
M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

The fundamental purpose of the university is to be a collection of scholars looking for truth. And to train younger people to replace them, or who will benefit in their eventual work from learning from them.
That sound high-falutin’ but that’s it. The other things the university does stem from this basic purpose.
So a good program involves serious, rigorous thought, original ideas, involves people who are real scholars not just in one area but have a wide basis of scholarship.
The degrees that are worthless are those that undermine this. In humanities and sciences, those that have poor standards, mainly.
But also the proliferation of professional qualifications that are basically cash grabs by universities are a serious problem.

Harry Johnston
Harry Johnston
1 month ago

Yeah