Why are we mortgaging our children’s future for the sake of mass education?

Vince Cable began his speech proposing the increase in tuition fees by ‘hoping’, inter alia, that ‘nobody is suggesting that we should cut student numbers’.  This statement tells us everything that is wrong with the debate on tuition fees.

On one side, ministers and other apologists for the policy argue for a scheme likely to require students to start their working lives with £40,000 of debt by saying that ‘almost everyone’ will be better off and then (bizarrely) supporting the policy by arguing that between 40 and 60 per cent of debts will be written off.  It is highly questionable that ‘debts’ that are so qualified and so expressly underwritten by government should not actually be considered part of the national debt: that very debt that the Coalition is so exercised in cutting.  The generous repayment terms proposed (another reason it would be wise to hesitate before describing this as anything other than public debt) also suggest that it will be many years before there is a real increase in private funding for universities.

Ranged against them is the irate NUS which, when it isn’t engaged in secret negotiations with the government about cutting £800 million off grants in order to prevent or mitigate the rise in fees, opposes blindly every proposal to reform higher education finance while condemning even a small reduction in the proposed increase in student numbers.

At least the government recognises that a choice has to be made.  Students must take on more and more of the cost of higher education in mass market higher education because nobody ‘seriously argues’ for a reduction in student numbers.  The NUS – with the pie in the sky attitude that typifies the left – wants to have its cake and eat it.  No increases in fees (preferably decreases) and ever increasing student numbers.

Will anyone in public life have the guts to admit that the assumption underpinning this debate – that it is an inherent good to educate half our young people in universities – is not only discredited and flawed but has mortgaged the future of all who benefit from university education?  Does anyone want to ask what a university education is for?  Or are we so fixated by a dutch auction with other OECD countries that we must measure our performance not on the literacy and numeracy and other objective measures of our children’s attainment (all of which have fallen over the last 13 years) but by the proportion that receive a tertiary education, regardless of its merit?

Quite apart from the fact that students are encouraged to see a university education as a right, rather than a great attainment to aspire to and be earned by academic performance (witness the complaints when over-subscribed universities were forced to turn down applicants – shock horror!), perhaps we might also consider the worth of a university education.  Until the middle of the twentieth century even solicitors, accountants and barristers could enter their professions without a degree (I know of at least one Lord Justice of Appeal who entered the Bar this way).  University wasn’t seen as necessary even for the liberal professions; yet now it appears that almost every white collar recruiter requires a degree.  For what?

It angers me that bright poor children may be put off going to university – and almost all will be forced to incur these debts – because we have lost sight of what universities are about.  ‘Mass education’ was one of the cries at the protests yesterday.  Mass education has led us into this sorry mess.



  1. Jon Rollason said,

    13 December, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Isn’t this a recipe for accelerating global decline?

    I don’t argue with the idea that literacy and numeracy are important, they should be a given. But I strongly suspect that an increasingly high proportion of people being educated to increasingly high levels also needs to be a given unless we are resigned to having an increasingly un-competitive work-force, increasing flight of even white-collar jobs and a dramatic decline in our living standards across the board.

    If it was genuinely the case that all these extra degrees were worthless then returning to the halcyon days of the ruler of the Queen’s navy starting off polishing up the handles on the big front door would be a splendid money-saving wheeze. As it is the “white collar recruiters” that you would usually trust to know what’s best for their businesses want graduates. If your white collar recruiters can’t have British graduates there is not a shortage of graduates from elsewhere. The jobs will move or the highly-qualified people will move here. But business will not decide en masse to employ and train bright British school-leavers in preference to foreign graduates. Britain does not plausibly have the option of deciding unilaterally that the jobs that still produce a standard of living that we can tolerate for British people no longer require higher education. Nor can it decide unilaterally to impose the costs of replicating that level of education through apprenticeships etc. onto business here – the CBI would only be the first and shrillest voice complaining that the competitivesness of British business was being hamstrung and that its members wold prefer to re-locate abroad.

    Funding of mass higher education is simply a necessary investment in protecting British per capita GDP in the future. Without it, there must be a real risk that we simply condemn future generations to competing for lower value work with an ever-larger pool of cheaper labour, ultimately driving down their living standards (and reducing the ability of the working age population to support entitlements for the retired etc).

    The introduction of near-universal primary education involved subtantial socialised cost and achieved great increases in output. Ditto secondary education. 200 years ago there was doubtless much harrumphing about extending mass education among children who could be productively clambering beneath spinning jennies, and no doubt every self-respecting conservative knew of someone who had made good despite never having been taught to read. Whether fortunately or unfortunately, preserving a competitive advantage for highly skilled jobs requires further, nay, continuous improvement in the educational sophistication of our workforce.

    We can argue about the cost-effectiveness of the process – 2 years or 3, full-time or part-time etc – we can argue about the funding model, we can argue about priorities and method of delivery. But the option of simply deciding that we can’t manage mass education as a largely socialised cost will have a major impact on the sort of country Britain is in the fairly near future.

    • francishoar said,

      13 December, 2010 at 3:25 pm

      You should note that I was not prescriptive about numbers. My point is this. I agree with the government that there is a finite sum for higher education (although not with the extent of the cut to Arts tuition). The government have chosen to charge everyone the full cost of Arts degrees and most of the cost of other degrees regardless of the worth of those degrees. That particularly affects the poor (disincentives) and those who will not have high income jobs post graduation (because of the greater time they will take to clear their debts).

      There is an alternative. Governments do restrict numbers and always have. Numbers of courses available at universities are determined centrally – hence the controversy over the smaller increase in student numbers earlier this year. The question is, where should that restriction come in? Where are our priorities – funding high quality degrees or requiring almost everyone to pay for their degrees.

      Your answer (especially re employers) assumes that degrees are the correct means of teaching 40-50 per cent of the workforce. You rely on market forces to support that theory. Is there not an alternative of hugely expanding apprenticeships and other forms of learning (including – as you yourself suggest – part time and shorter higher education courses)? They are not only possible for blue collar jobs – there’s no reason why on-the-job learning could not be developed as a partnership between government and business for many sectors.

      Finally, the obsession with greater university numbers is directly analogeous with the decline in the value of vocational education. If it is all about going to university, many who would have been better suited to high quality vocational education will be wasting their time on something to which they are less well suited; and at enormous expense.

      (I also can’t help recalling a private recollection of a university tutor you know (who can of course remain nameless) and his experiences.)

  2. Jon Rollason said,

    13 December, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    OK. How are we funding excellent vocational training and on-the-job learning for such of the workforce as we don’t want going to university? Will this cost less money in the round? I suspect, I’m afraid, that the answer is not really. It will either involve significant state subsidy for business, or significant lost output. I’ve no idea how to start measuring that. Presumably, if you’re training on-the-job to do something genuinely hard and ultimately remunerative, you’re not worth a significant salary while you’re training and you take up the time of other employees who already know what they’re doing. Trainee solicitors, after a degree and a further year’s vocational training (self or employer funded) take 2 years to be properly useful and are a significant investment during that period. How on-the-job compares for a given job to the total cost of someone doing a degree in (say) Tourism Management at Bournemouth University I’ve simply no idea. If you can enlighten me that it’s clearly very cheap I shall be readily convinced of the argument more generally.

    I agree that there is much to be said for many people’s education being readily translatable into the ability to earn themselves a reasonale living, and of course if we’re really diverting people who ought to be apprentice spaceship-builders into a pointless life of Sports Science Studies degrees then that’s a bad business. I agree too that the privilege of spending 3 years getting pissed, trying to get laid, acting like twats and bluffing tutorials is not one that should necessarily be given to all persons if actually they can be suitably educated in an equally effective way for the same outlay or less.

    But that is to fetishise university rather. The objective (and I don’t think you’re disputing this) is to raise educational or training standards as high as we can to keep standards of living afloat in an increasingly competitive and fully global labour market. A division between university on the one hand and “other” on the other is not wholly helpful therefore. I’m in agreement that endless expansion of traditional university education may well be wasteful. But mass education is not a luxury, and education or high-level training (in a university or not) needs continuous improvement and (probably) rising expenditure.

    It also isn’t something that can be suddenly phased in. The kids know that the world is set up so that they need a degree to get on. If you take away their opportunity to get one (to save your budget for bombing the shit out of arab babies or giving wealthy pensioners hip replacements or whatever) before you’ve got a fairly effective, credible and proven alternative track for them to follow they’ll reasonably conclude that you don’t give care whether they sink or swim, which, coming from seasoned state-funded bread-roll throwing twats like us will rightly be seen as pretty rough work.

    • francishoar said,

      13 December, 2010 at 4:38 pm

      As you say, apprentiseships/traineeships are largely an investment by the company into their future. However much they are supported, I would be astounded if the average government subsidy needed to be over £20,000 (which is at least the mean sum of government subsidy to universities over three years per student, after the £3,000 + paid in current fees) to attract business.
      (See, for example http://www.apprenticeships-in-sussex.com/faqs.php: “For applicants who are not eligible for government funding an Apprenticeship programme will cost between £3,000 and £15,000, depending on the industry.”)

  3. Jon Rollason said,

    13 December, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    Thanks. Without going to town on it, I think we should assume that we’re looking at advanced apprenticeships (currently not govt funded according to your link) for a very high proportion of the people we are pushing in that direction instead of to university, and it would be reasonable to assume that costs would be at the higher end of that range if we’re replacing degree level training. Also, perhaps, that costs per head would actually rise with increased numbers as presumably there is a limited capacity to absorb new apprentices in any given workforce before additional resources are needed to deal with them. Do those sound fair assumptions?

    If so then that’s got us a significant saving, but perhaps not a spectacular one. And we’ve still got the problem that any number remotely approaching £15,000 is too much to expect people to cough up at the outset, so they probably need either full funding or soft loans with repayment pegged to later income, with the implications for failing to get education costs off the balance sheet that you identify.

  4. Rob said,

    15 December, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    Chaps, I think, with respect, you have both missed the point. Or at least a large part of it.

    You proceed on the basis that there is a dichotomy between on the one hand, university degrees, and, on the other, apprenticeships. But a significant proportion of the existing higher education budget is spent on (i) pointless degrees; or (ii) sensible degrees at institutions of marginal reputation.

    So, take the question – what would happen to a media studies graduate at the University of Bedfordshire if he had to pay more money for his degree? And the answer would be:
    a. He doesn’t do the degree in the first place. UK Plc probably benefits by saving the money needed to educate him, beyond his fee contribution.
    b. He does the degree but pays more money for it. He probably wastes money and so does UK Plc, albeit UK Plc loses less than it would otherwise and his freedom to make bad choices is preserved.
    But, and here is the point, the answer is not going to be c – He does an apprenticeship in plumbing instead.

    As I understand it, Jon, your argument rests on a false premise. Namely that graduates from duff courses at duff institutions would not be employable (or perhaps as employable) unless they had first successfully completed their duff course. Ideally, we might go on to say, as you do Frank, that all film studies students should be trained to be electricians, but we do not have to. All we have to establish is that there is no – or perhaps no significant – net benefit to that course at that institution.

    You can nevertheless see the PR problem for alumni of Eton and St. Paul’s in advancing this argument. The game is therefore played long. The next generation of sports scientists might spurn the halls of academe and go straight to their local gym instead. The loss, and here I respectfully agree with Frank, is that in the meantime poorer (but probably not the poorest – it is usually the lower middle class and in particular the children of single parents who lose out) will be dissuaded from obtaining a worthwhile education at a worthwhile institution.

    A different but interesting issue is the impact of the dumbing down not of university education but of secondary education. If A-Levels went beyond basic grammar, arithmetic and Google, would fewer folk believe that free university education was an inalienable human right? Right now, a university specifies a standard of 3 As at A-Level and then 1 in every 6 students in the whole country gets the grades. On those statistics, why should university not be open to all? And why should the brightest generation since records began suddenly have to pay for it?

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