by Henry Hill
Monday, 16
August 2021

Stop pretending that university equals opportunity

The debate about student numbers is stuck in a bygone era
by Henry Hill
Cambridge University. Credit: Graeme Robertson/Getty Images

‘We need our universities more than ever’. That’s the title adorning an article in today’s Telegraph by Chris Skidmore, the former universities minister, pushing back against the idea that too many young people are being funnelled towards degrees.

But it would be better entitled ‘More young people than ever expect to go to university’, for that is the only argument he advances:

“Universities are hardly attempting to lure students through their gates, but responding to a shift in expectations due to an improvement in life chances across all regions. Admittedly, these improvements are extremely variable, but it is where levelling up has the best chance of success…”
- Chris Skidmore, Daily Telegraph

More people expect to go to university than in previous generations — in large part because of two decades of expectation-setting by successive governments. But trying to justify this trend under the new rubric of ‘levelling up’ doesn’t work.

The appropriate number of degree places and how to distribute them are separate questions. There is an obvious difference between giving “a white, working-class boy from the North East” a fair shot at a worthwhile degree, and simply oversupplying the market so he can have one “if he chooses”.

Skidmore’s ‘consumer is king’ mentality ignores the fact that the ‘rising expectations’ he describes often rest on false assumptions. A degree today is not the passport to a comfortable middle-class life that it was when university was simply a stage in the life-cycle of a small section of the population.

And just as with grade inflation, as degrees proliferate employers will start to use other things that often favour the better-off — interview confidence, contacts, unpaid work — to sift through applicants.

Worse still, some degrees actually leave students financially worse off than if they hadn’t gone to university at all. And if they don’t earn enough — and many don’t — then the cost of their loans reverts to the taxpayer.

All of which makes Skidmore’s claim that the “reality of the modern world” demands ever-more university places rather suspect. There is no global-competition justification for objectively bad university courses.

In fact, if anything the imperative towards mass tertiary education (notwithstanding overseas students, who pay commercial rates and potentially enhance Britain’s soft power) is almost entirely domestic: universities are a great way of stealthily subsidising towns. Not only are they often major employers, but they also bring thousands of students, all putting their loans (often just deferred government grants, in reality) into the local economy.

That’s the real reason that any serious push to trim the fat in the tertiary education sector would be difficult for a government committed to ‘levelling up’. Not because it might deny kids from left-behind communities a spot in the degree mill, but because it could deal a serious economic blow to towns and cities.

Higher education needs reform. But ministers need to be honest about the functions actually served by the system when discussing those reforms — and not hide behind opportunity mantras that no longer stack up.

Join the discussion

  • some degrees actually leave students financially worse off

    Without disagreeing with the thrust of this piece, I would like to nail the myth that graduates pay more tax nowadays.
    I graduated in the 1980s. On my typical 1985 London graduate salary of about £9,000 I had a tax allowance of £2,205. I paid 30% basic rate tax and 9% NI on the rest, which was 29% of the net. And so did everyone on that wage, including people who hadn’t been to university.
    The equivalent salary today would be about £35,000 a year and deductions would be less than 24%. That’s right: they pay 5% less tax now than they did 35 years ago, including their student loan.
    That’s before considering that many big-ticket items cost the same or more in nominal terms then as they do now. A TV, a computer, a stereo – these all cost respectively about £400, £1,000 and about £1,000. Renting a video cost about £3 then and still does. And so on. Cars are about the same in real terms but all the above items have got massively better in quality.

  • at best 25% of people have the intellectual capacity for University. This means if 50% attend there must be degrees which will be made to fit the lower 25%

    I think the problem is even worse than you paint it. If 50% of yoof go to university, but some kids who are smart enough to go decide not to, then the student numbers are being made up to 50% by applicants from the bottom half of the class.
    This inexorably means that there must be people on university courses whose IQ is below 100 – perhaps well below.
    If you consider that there are even “open access” universities that require no qualifying exams passes at age 18, then there are probably quite a few “graduates” out there with IQs between 85 and 90. This supposition is wholly borne out by my anecdotal experience of recent UK graduates.

  • Thank you – your comment is right on. Employers have been making university degrees a requirement for poorly paid entry level jobs for years now, ever since every school started churning out MBA in its heydays. This depressed and continues to diminish salaries, thus placing swathes of university grads at the losing end.

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