by Henry Hill
Monday, 16
August 2021
Reaction
16:29

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.

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Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
10 months ago

The problem is only 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% – and what is a Very serious problem is Teaching degrees have filled that criteria.

A great many teachers, and to be truthful, a great many minority teachers in USA, just are not up to the job after the students become a bit more sophisticated.

The second terrible thing is Student Debt! For society to be healthy young people must be able to set up families at a youngish age. They need to marry, buy a house, and have children – unless society is to collapse through dysfunction.

Student loans set this back a decade – this is Appalling! To wreck the ability of the successful young to have families is the Most Costly thing a society can do to its self. The unsuccessful are paid to have families as singles – housing, food, everything – but the best, they are stopped! This is the most insane thing in society today!

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
10 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

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.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
10 months ago

The main problem is that with so many going to University now, there simply isn’t enough jobs around that pay the graduate premium on salaries that most of these youngsters were promised, and many now have large student debts that hang like a millstone around their necks for years. The second problem is that now employers almost expect university graduates for entry level positions that 30 years ago didn’t require a degree, so those without (with the exception of the trades) are left with even more poorly paid, dead end insecure employment than they otherwise would have had. Excess degrees rather than lifting salaries, has simply meant youngsters have to get horribly in debt simply to secure basic employment

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
10 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Australia and Ireland are countries that produce more high-quality graduates than there are jobs for in the local economy. They’ve dealt with this via emigration, frequently to the UK where it is easiest to move to.
The result is that the UK graduate in Waste Management with Dance, drawn from probably the top 55 or 60% of the population, is competing for a job with people from probably the top 10% of the Irish and Australian systems. As these emigrants are quite likely to be refugees from woke tax-and-spend identitarian lunacy, they’re going to be among the smartest and hardest-working of their cohort.
Anecdotally I’ve never met an Irish or Australian graduate in the UK who had done a Noddy subject; those stay home, I guess, and focus on policing thought.

Last edited 10 months ago by Jon Redman
Alyona Song
Alyona Song
10 months ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

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.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
10 months ago

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.

David Harris
David Harris
10 months ago

Every degree course should include a mandatory practical ‘vocational’ element (eg. basic plumbing, social care, hairdressing, carpentry, etc) which should also be passed to gain the degree. Then if there’s a problem getting a job they’ll always have a trade to fall back on. That is good for the individual and good for the country.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
10 months ago
Reply to  David Harris

Health & Safety.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
10 months ago
Reply to  David Harris

Except my degree did include that. It was called programming. Never had any problem finding a job since.

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
10 months ago

I think EVERYONE is intellectually capable of higher education and its demands, however atm the way the school & university system is set up, it does not value different types of abilities equally. For example a highly capable plumber who is extremely skilled at his profession spent the same time learning and honing his trade will never be as valued as an average medic .
Also someone who is a well rounded sports enthusiast who spends as many hours on many sports is not as valued as an elite sportsperson dedicated to one sport. This admiration for specialisation has led to university being so popular. We (public) have ourselves to blame to think that a university degree is a must to success.
Why do bankers/ lawyers/tech earn enormous sums even at entry level, while tradesmen/farmers/soldiers don’t? I don’t really know because on the face, the latter are adding more value to our lives, but it appears that university makes students and employers feel more employable ,especially for certain jobs. How is levelling ever possible if value is disproportionately appropriated among jobs and university is a stepping stone to moving away from low income jobs?

Throw in Covid fears and the inflated grades, the self serving scientists, the virtue signalling professors, university becomes a joke & an intellectually challenged institution.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
10 months ago

I think EVERYONE is intellectually capable of higher education and its demands

Why on earth do you think that?
50% of the population has an IQ below 100. How can someone with an IQ of 85 cope with a university degree, unless it’s been dumbed down so much that it’s worthless?
You’re falling into the same snobbish pitfall that Blair fell into. “a highly capable plumber who is extremely skilled at his profession…will never be as valued as an average medic” – well, of course. The former occupation requires middling cognitive skill of a level that is very, very commonplace, to the point where probably two-thirds of the population has it. The latter requires cognitive skill at a level maybe 2% of the population possesses. Pretty well anyone could be a plumber – or a tradesman, or farmer, or soldier – but very few people are fit to become medics.
The relatively lower value of a plumber versus a doctor is caused by the fact that plumbers are easy to train and don’t have to be smart, whereas for doctors the opposites are true. If we lost all our plumbers overnight to Dutch Plumber Disease, it might take as long as six weeks to replace the whole lot. If we lost all our doctors it would take six years, assuming we could even find enough smart people to work with.
The solution is not, as Blair imagined, to award degrees in plumbing.

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
10 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I do not recognise your IQ metrics and its results. They are made for certain groups to fail. Those measures of success are put in place by others before them who have been similarly conditioned, Thereby it makes you a snob, not me as I do think everyone, given the right circumstances CAN achieve success in whatever they choose to do. You cannot measure IQ at birth & through living life in a certain environment you a predisposed to being a plumber or a doctor. It could be parenting, schooling, government policies etc. The environment one gets, is the decider of what one becomes. Anyone one who gets the right environment/coaching/ conditioning can become a doctor. The 2% you mention have, not the inborn skill to become a doctor but the right conditioning.

As for the value of each profession, they are disproportionately lauded/ demoted for their ability. I understand why you are getting so worked up about the value of a doctor as you think he is saving lives and is more a noble profession, its emotive although you may admit that you have been conditioned to thinking like that. If you substitute a doctor with a banker who has no education in banking but is being paid disproportionately large sums for dealing in ether like commodities that most of us don’t understand and have no interest in, that if they ceased to exist, most will not miss, then you may appreciate what I am trying to say.
I will certainly miss a plumber if he cannot come in time to prevent damage to my house.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
10 months ago

Everything you have written has been long and conclusively debunked in the literature.
https://russellwarne.com/2019/12/01/35-myths-about-human-intelligence/

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
10 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

‘ Instead of an insightful view into the problems of stereotype threat research, I instead found an article that itself is plagued with flaws.’
This is just one of the first comments I sawon that article.

Look at the alternate possibility than that we who designed western education, live by it, honour and respect it and have gained by it, to us it’s a reliable religion. And that includes me. But at the same time 10000 hours of practice at anything be it studying for medical school or sport or piano or mathematics can give you that advantage/intelligence that takes you further than the others. The brain can be trained. This is my understanding.

Dr Stephen Nightingale
Dr Stephen Nightingale
10 months ago

Moreover, any dimbo with parents who can shove them through Eton and Oxford can become Prime Minister. There is plenty of evidence for this over the last two hundred years.
Requiring Prime Ministers to have modern plumbing skills, that require knowledge of not only water engineering systems but also electro-mechanical systems, electronic diagnostics, power tools, and a fair wodge of legal and code requirements, would weed out the less mentally agile.

William Cameron
William Cameron
10 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

That is quite wrong . It takes years to train a good plumber. And good plumbers earn pretty much the same as doctors.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
10 months ago

No it doesn’t and no they don’t.
The highest salary for a Plumber in London Area is £48,342 per year
https://www.glassdoor.co.uk/Salaries/london-plumber-salary-SRCH_IL.0,6_IM1035_KO7,14.htm
The average salary for Doctor is £51,545 per year
https://www.glassdoor.co.uk/Salaries/london-doctor-salary-SRCH_IL.0,6_IM1035_KO7,13.htm
The only reason it would take a long time to train a plumber is the lower quality of the material one is working with.

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
10 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

That’s not true . There are many levels of plumbers training. From basic plumbing to gas boilers to complicated heating systems going into engineering. There are years required for that. Not to mention the experience and apprenticeship.

Dr Stephen Nightingale
Dr Stephen Nightingale
10 months ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Most of the Plumbers I call on are self-employed, not employees of large accountant-led firms. I don’t imagine their incomes are lumped in with ‘industry pay scales’.
And I can certainly tell the difference in quality of work done by a self-employed maintenance plumber on the one hand, and the boy employed by the Barrett’s-du-jour who is under pressure to get X houses plumbed under a fixed price contract.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
10 months ago

“I don’t really know because on the face, the latter are adding more value to our lives”
People don’t get paid for ‘value added to our lives’. They are paid to provide a service or good. It is determined by supply and demand of said service or good. As the poster above said, if a job can be done by a large pool of people it will be worth less because the supply is high. It’s why a diamond is worth more than water in most circumstances even though water most certainly ‘adds more value to our lives’. This whining about x (fill in with victim group de jour) people being paid less because they are more culturally values seem to completely ignore how the salaries people paid get determined by market forces.
Maybe a learn a bit of basic economics.

Last edited 10 months ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
10 months ago

You have missed my point.
I completely understand & agree that economics determines wages & salaries. However what leaves me baffled is that the societal values which determine these economies. I am definitely more a capitalist than a communist. But even in a highly capitalist state, there are values that are socialist that govern our society and can expect to have a comfortable equilibrium of the two . The government steps in to take that role to ensure we don’t rely entirely on the market forces which left to their own devices will make gods of ‘trillionairs’.

To keep to the point of jobs people see university as a way to reach that venerable job with extraordinary earning potential (value of which has been determined by market forces). Hence how can you blame people for wanting access to universities that gets them there? So nobody would want a less of a job as market forces have stratified jobs and the only way to access them is through university. But this venerable institution can only take a few that have passed certain set exams and that fit the mould. The rest who didn’t are deemed less capable, not just for university but also generally as determined by the salaries. But all that has happened is that they have not fitted the pre-existing mould . That does not make them less capable or smart. Just smart differently for which there is no mould.