The debate about student numbers is stuck in a bygone era
‘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:
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.