UK Government Must be Honest on Costs, Benefits of Higher Ed

Fraser Nelson, writing in The Daily Telegraph, believes that the UK government is not being honest with the young people of England when it relentlessly pushes more and more of them to pursue higher education regardless of the cost. During the years of the Labour government headed by Tony Blair, the government’s education policy pushed to have 50% of British students go on to pursue a degree. But at a time when Coalition government is questioning many other positions of received wisdom, why aren’t university policies getting a second look as well?

In particular, Nelson calls out David Willetts, the Universities Minister, for failing to admit that pursuing a degree isn’t something that would benefit a large number of students who are set on it. Especially, Willetts should take on the misapprehension that a university degree serves as a dividing line between failure and success. This is certainly not something employers believe, as they not only seek UK A-level graduates, but even those who didn’t take the university-mandated exams.

From the moment that John Major started to abolish student grants, the British government has been in the business of selling (rather than simply providing) higher education. Yes, studying costs, runs the argument, but it is an investment: what students pay is a small fraction of what they will get back.

Then came the proliferation of courses and institutions, from BA (Hons) in Golf Management at the University of the Highlands and Islands to Trade Union Studies at Blackpool College. The definition of a degree has changed massively, but the financial argument used for getting one has not changed at all.

Tripling of the cap on university tuition from just above £3,000 to £9,000 was justified by Willetts via a claim that a university degree adds more than £100,000 to the average graduate’s lifetime earnings. If true, this would make taking on £40,000 in student debt an acceptable, and even fiscally prudent, decision. Still, there is the problematic phrase “on average,” which can disguise a range of outcomes, many of them unfavorable to those who choose to pursue a university degree or those who choose to go without.

Last year the Government released a research paper that spelt it out. For doctors and dentists, a degree is a prerequisite. They will earn £400,000 more over a lifetime, as you might expect, having been fully trained for a well-paid profession. But for students admitted to less rigorous degrees, the premium quickly diminishes – especially for men. Those who graduate in the subjects I studied, history and philosophy, can expect to earn a paltry £35 a year more than non-graduates. For graduates in “mass communication” the premium is just £120 a year. But both are better value than a degree in “creative arts”, where graduates can actually expect to earn £15,000 less, over a lifetime, than those who start work aged 18.

The grim reality that some courses of study pay off better than others isn’t disclosed to students as they start to weigh their options after leaving school. Today’s employment situation paints a sobering picture: Nearly a third of recent university graduates are employed in jobs that require no additional background beyond GCSEs. And at least any kind of employment could be considered a victory when nearly 10% of graduates find themselves on the dole, unable to land a job at all.

Much has been written about the ”jilted generation’’ and how twentysomethings feel betrayed, saddled with debt and robbed of prospects. Unemployed graduates, all 130,000 of them, will be richly entitled to such resentment. Theirs may well end up being known as the transition generation, those sold university education for a hefty fee, before they were able to know what they were buying. But there is an upside to all this. If a degree is no guarantee of success in modern Britain, then the lack of one is no guarantee of failure. For those whose A-level results have precluded university, there is still all to play for.

08 20, 2012
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