Coffee House

Britain’s great university rip-off

16 May 2013

6:34 AM

16 May 2013

6:34 AM

The mis-selling of higher education is one of the least remarked-upon scandals of our time, but anyone under 40 should be familiar with the concept. You’re told, at school, that a degree will make you far better-off. Politicians even put a price on it: a degree will make you, on average, £100,000 better-off in your lifetime. But this is a fake figure, produced by mashing together law and medicine degrees with others. And when you get to university, you find the ‘tuition’ involves being asked to sit in crowded lecture theatres (or watch on a video in an overflow room) and be told to go read books. This isn’t the case for all students, of course, but it roughly describes the case for those who are lured into dubious degrees that serve neither students or society and do not much impress employers. The students find themselves not much more employable, but they are stuck with the debt.

Now that students are being asked to pay up to £9,000 for their coursework, they’re beginning to ask if it’s worth the money. That’s why the Which/HEPI survey, which came out yesterday, is worth remarking upon. It surveyed 26,000 students in 103 of Britain’s 164 universities and colleges. It found that some maths courses offer 22 hours of tuition while others offer 13 hours. A third of students say that, if they’d known what their course was going to be like, they’d have chosen another. One in ten undergraduates believe they have been misled by their university. The average student workload – 30 hours per week – is 10 hours less than the government’s recommended average. Conclusion: an awful lot of British students are being ripped off.

The key findings are below:-


Courses worse than expected

The report, like everything from Which, is well worth reading (PDF). But I’d like to add one more thing –  the actual figures on the value of a degree. It’s from a little-publicised study carried out by Vince Cable’s department a couple of years ago and shows (as you’d expect) that those taught hard-to-acquire skills like engineering, law, medicine and dentistry do end up earning more than those who started work as teenagers. But arts degrees really don’t make you that better-off. Men who studied history, like yours truly, are hardly any better-off at all and men who study creative art and design are actually worse-off.

Graduate premiums

The figures can be found on p56 of this report and deserve wider circulation, certainly amongst the school-leavers who are told there is some binary difference between the salary of a graduate and non-graduate.

In most cases, a university education is worth it – and the courses are appreciated. But we are, finally, beginning to take a closer, harsher look at the universities whose degrees do not offer value for money. This is as David Willetts would have wanted. The letters MA after your name do not, of themselves, mean more money.

Of course you can say that degrees have a far wider, social value. In my case, the value of my history degree lay in the chance to work on the student newspaper and discover journalism. But politicians who urge students to take on all this debt should be clear about the tangible benefits, rather than repeat a £100,000 figure which has the potential to mislead.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Janette

    My son has just completed his first term and is now embarking on his second. His contact hours in the first term were 9 hours per week and he was only in on a Tuesday and Thursday. This second term is is in one more day but still only 9 hours contact time. Last Thursday (16th Jan) he was told there would be no more lectures until February. He has no assignments to do either. What is going on!!

  • Teacher

    My daughter recently left Exeter University with a twenty grand debt to pay for living expenses (‘lucky’ to be in the three grand a year mob) and has recently had a small pay rise which has accelerated her rate of tax to 40 per cent because of student fee payback through her salary where she owes another ten thousand and rising!

    Not quite what was sold at the time as Frazer Nelson points out. In fact, I well remember that the government at one point claimed that the lifetime earnings’ premium of a degree was £400,000.

    I personally think that a degree is worth having for its own sake but only if the standards are high, the study rigorous and academic and much reading is undertaken. Three years at ‘party central’ is not worth a penny. I have seen bright, well brought up children come back after three years lazy, slobbish and unemployable.

    We seem to be in a bit of a muddle over higher education. Did no-one think through a system where half of all school pupils were pushed into degree study when the jobs were disappearing overseas and to immigrant labour? And why, before they are 25, do both of my children have debts of £50,000?

  • Public Servant

    The problem with this analysis is that it focuses only on the financial value of the degree to the individual prospective student. No consideration is given to the value in terms of personal development. Surely this is worthwhile, even if the net effect on lifetime earnings is nil and which, by the way, would be likely to be lost in any prospective move to a two year, crammed degree.

    Much more important to my mind is that there is no consideration of any value added to society as a whole whether the graduate ends up as a doctor or dentist, a public prosecutor or a teacher or social worker. The self-serving will still be with us, even when we’ve dealt with the poor.

  • shiv

    It leaves one poorer in all respect.

  • rosie

    It isn’t just students who suffer from John Major’s dream of everyone going to university. Anyone who has the misfortune to live in a student dominated neighbourhood will tell you the 24 hour drinking culture, otherwise known as the Night Time Economy, which councils encourage despite the obvious truth that it drags everything else down with it, depends in large part on the student population. At Christmas, Easter, and during the summer months, these neighbourhoods enjoy a taste of what everyone else takes for granted – a good night’s sleep, and easy passage along the pavement without being met by overflowing dustbins and piles of vomit, broken glass, and worse. Companies like Student Castle and those touting buy-to-let portfolios would do well to calculate that the highwater mark may have been reached.

    Perhaps it is time students paid a proportion of council tax, to offset the costs councils incur in clearing up after them.

  • Julian_F

    “Men who studied history, like yours truly, are hardly any better-off at all and men who study creative art and design are actually worse-off”.

    Do you think that you’d be as well off and in your current professional role if you hadn’t studied at university?

  • derekemery

    I think there should be a government site that shows what the odds are of you finding work with the degree you are thinking of and the type of jobs and salaries that course leads to.

    I suspect many would not choose some degrees at all from some universities if they knew the truth.

  • Honig

    Strange that economics doesn’t feature

  • pearlsandoysters

    Methinks that there’s persistent confusion between education & professional training. Engineering and dentistry are professions, while history, philosophy, etc, are not “professions” in any strict sense of the word. Probably, many degrees should be summarized along the lines of “professional” and “leisure”. It’ll allow the potential students to be on the safe side as to potential worth of their degrees.

  • david.geddes1

    I had a great time at University but I would not put myself into debt. If I was starting out today I would work and do the OU or find a job which provided graduate training.

  • Daniel Maris

    Happy to have a discussion about quality but not one based on “net lifetime financial benefit”. I am sure we have all studied things which haven’t added one penny to our net worth but which, looking bad, we would feel as a grievous loss had we not been given that opportunity.

  • DWWolds

    I have considerable experience of working with people in career change situations. When I had an office in town I had a steady stream of graduates coming to see me and pouring out their disillusionment with their career prospects.

    Most of them had obtained a 1st or 2.1 degree and had then undertaken professional training only to realise on reaching their mid to late 20s and that they could not spend the rest of their lives doing the job for which they were qualified. Fortunately, in most cases I was able to help them make the links leading to a change of direction.

    Others had taken a degree that was highly specialised but at odds with their life-style preferences. One chap had a degree in marine science and wanted to work with fish. Unfortunately, he also wanted to live in a Midlands city where fish are few and far between except on the fishmongers slab.

    Unfortunately too in some cases they had taken a degree that was hardly worth the paper it was written on. Many of those ended up totally frustrated behind the counter in a bank or building society, a job they could have taken at 18.

    Also a few years ago I did some volunteer mentoring for a Young Enterprise programme for 2nd year students at a local university that was once a polytechnic. My guess was that 50% of the undergraduates on the course would have been better off at a College of FE rather than at a university. Some of them revealed a total misunderstanding of the kind of job the course for which they were studying would qualify them for.

    However, it was the teaching staff who were the real problem. They
    congratulated the students on “choosing” the module when it was
    compulsory. They kept changing the dates on which assignments were
    due. They asked the mentors to guide the students in a task only to
    change the goalposts and give them a different task at the last minute.

    Overall, whilst I believe that if we are to compete in an increasingly competitive world we need to increase the number of graduates, starting university at 18 should not be the only option. For example, one of the top accountancy firms is now recruiting 18 year-olds and providing them professional training. There is no reason why, once they have received that training they should not go on to study for an MBA or another Masters as a mature student. That is the route I followed.

    True, such a route will not provide the kind of university experience nor the broadening of knowledge Fraser enjoyed whilst studying history. However, it will help to meet the very real need we have to upgrade our skills base. It will also be considerably cheaper.

  • Baskerville

    It is one of the great benefits of the fee system that students, their parents and prospective employers are now taking ‘value’ seriously. Of course, it’s not just value for money, but it’s amazing how it focuses the mind when something isn’t ‘free’ anymore.

  • NiceTeaParty

    Is the sole reason to spend three years in the library to get a Graduate Job ?

    Obviously not.

    Its a time to grow

    A time to explore

    A time to experiment

    Would society really be better off if only 10% went onto university ?

    Besides why shouldn’t painters, craftsmen and middle class mums have English or History degrees ?

    • Noa

      Most students will end up incurring £45-50,000 worth of debt for the privilege of ‘growing’.

      It will take them a lifetime to pay it, and the accruing interest, off.

      We need to re-acquire the understanding that knowledge and learning are not only obtained through expensive formal education, but ultimately by personal study and hard work.

    • Rhoda Klapp5

      People who don’t go also learn much and develop much in the years from 18 to 21. Time to separate the time-served aspect from the qualification. Produce alternative ways of doing the work with a common testing protocol. Harvard is already putting course material online for free. We need to get to a point where it is what you know and can do which count, not how much you paid or how long it took.

      • starfish

        Agreed. This is where accreditation comes in- a route followed by many of the professions and chartered institutes.

    • Angrygraduate

      Id rather spend £50,000 in barbados, south of france, australia, india etc for 3 years then “Grow”

  • Nigel Sedgwick

    Quoting from the Which report, page 18 immediately to the left of Chart 10 which Mr Fraser repeats as his main support for criticism, is the following: “Here we see that, very much in line with the National Student Survey (NSS), students are positive; 87 per cent agreed that the quality of their course overall was good. Students at older universities were more likely to agree with this – 91 per cent at Russell Group institutions versus 84 per cent at Post-92 institutions.”

    I am, accordingly, sceptical as to his main thrust.

    Best regards

  • Triquet

    I have four degrees (not boasting). I have a BSc in Engineering, and an MSc ditto. These are genuine degrees with massive content and contact time. I also have a BA and a MMus which are complete bollocks.

  • FF42

    Confused. Are you saying degrees don’t bring economic benefits to those that pay for them? Your chart tells us that they almost always do bring benefit, albeit marginal in some cases. On this ground school leavers would be advised to apply for university, but perhaps think about their subject choice.

    I do agree, however, that universities are inefficient for various reasons. Personally, I am in favour of cheap education, which I think benefits the country at large, as well as being what students mostly want themselves. Education factories, in other words.

    Historical note. Glasgow University, which I believe you attended , was reformed along with the Reformation itself. It did away with expensive colleges, like those in St Andrews and Oxford and Cambridge in England, and reduced the fees so they were affordable to almost anyone. This meant that factory workers like David Livingstone could turn up at Glasgow University with a sack of oats to live on and get a degree.

    This egalitarian approach is obviously incompatible with elite institutions and world rankings that are created with large inputs of money.

  • Jebediah

    The rules superficially are fairly simple:

    Go to a good university (rankings are available). Do a useful in demand degree (rankings are available).

    Below a certain ranking your net life time earnings are likely to fall if you go to a poor university doing a poor degree.

    However, you’ll have a lot of fun; how much is that worth? It might well be worth foregoing £20,000 over a lifetime. Also if you don’t go and most of your peers do, the n you will likely feel a sense of social exclusion. Not experiencing this is also worth something.

    So yes in hard cash, providing your teachers are upfront and realistic about rankings the situation is a clear calculation. When you throw in subjective social value it still might be worth going to a lesser uni and doing a lesser degree.

    However, the state probably should not provide below the cold hard cash economic viability level.

  • Tom Tom

    Come on Fraser, stop navel-gazing. Look at this instead and work out how we are going to handle a conflagration in the Middle East

    Looks like Cameron, Obama and Sarkozy have pushed Putin too far this time, and with the Russian Pacific Fleet entering the Med it looks as if general war in preparation. Maybe we can get rid of Saudi Arabia this time around and Qatar and help people in Bahrain ?

  • Tom Tom

    It solved youth unemployment at the time and made vacancies for Poles and other graduates to take jobs. Universities are bloated and simply Secondary School Plus. I mean the A-Level is hardly the exam it was and certainly not 1st year University as it used to be. The term “uni” about sums up the Pontins experience for generations of spoon-fed plagiarisers without an ounce of independent or critical thinking ready to regurgitate class notes into Hansard or BBC mikes

    • dalai guevara

      Indeed, universities have become so depoliticised, they no longer even note that radical teaching is unfolding right in front of their eyes, on their campuses.

  • Robert_Eve

    5% don’t know why their course is worse than expected.

    You couldn’t make it up!!

  • lgrundy

    Left-wing, transmission belts for socialism. Unless your kid is academically gifted I’d tell them to avoid ‘uni’ like the plague. Chances are they’ll complete their degree and end up working in the same call centre they would have been working in when they left school – only £45000 down in wages and £9000 up in debt.
    If you’re one of those right-on parents who really wants your kid to ‘benefit’ from the sort of left-wing brainwashing they’ll get on most of the useless courses offered by Britain’s colleges and polytechnics universities, buy them a subscription to The Guardian and get them to sit and watch the BBC for 30 hours each week; far cheaper and just as effective.

  • David H Cockburn

    This mis-selling idea is really nonsense. I decided to go to university when I was 18 at a time when I was quite mature enough to make up my own mind so I take responsibility for my own decision which was not influenced by the idea of making more money. I just wanted to do a more interesting job.
    However, we see here a very good effect of the £9000

  • The Sage

    In years gone by, you may have left school at 18 and joined a company such as a bank. You then spent one day and one evening each week at college. Over time you achieved a recognisable qualification yet you had no debt, a reasonable income during the period of study while also learning “on the job”. Perfect.
    So perfect in fact that this system was scrapped in favour of employing those with a degree.

    • Fergus Pickering

      In years gone by, old fruit, you left school at sixteen with five O levels and pursued the course you outlined. John Major did it, though I’m not sure about the O levels. Accountants, for instance, rarely saw the inside of a university.

      By the way, do you know why Art Colleges became Universities? Because Art teachers were paid less than English teachers because they didn’t have a degree. Technology teachers were in the same case. And P.E. teachers. Now they all get the same. Which, in my opinion, is quite right. But you didn’t have to bugger up the University system to get there. You just had to pay teachers the same..

      • Robert_Eve

        Why should they be paid the same?

        • Fergus Pickering

          Because they do the same job, fellow.

          • Teacher

            Speaking as a recently retired ex English teacher, I can tell you that teaching a core subject and not one but two GCSEs with large classes ( unlike some other subjects) to the whole school cohort makes English teachers the hardest workers in the school. The preparation and marking far outweigh what some other subjects require. I would like to argue that it is one subject where you cannot get away without a modicum of intelligence, but sadly, that is not true in all cases nowadays.

            Using the ‘how I would like my OWN children taught’ (the real benchmark which is actually used by teachers who, by definition are ‘in the know’) I would say that the following teachers should be paid the most:- maths, science, English. I’d make a case for history too as history teachers are generally amongst the brightest in the school and all the clever kids take it.

            • Fergus Pickering

              The most important teaching job is teaching in primary schools. If the children can’t read and write then there’s nothing you in the secondary schools can do. So by one measure primary school teachers should be paid more than you. The hardest teaching work is teaching children with disabiilties. If you had any experience of that you would know it. So by another measure these teachers ought to earn more than you. I hope you are not arguing that you should be better paid because you are more intelligent. Intelligence should not be a measure at all (if it can be measured). Might as well pay you for being good looking. Performance is the only measure surely. I’m sure you perform very well. So why not pay all teachers the same and sack those who don’t perform up to standard.

              Dogsnob. yes they do.. In the same way that all Administrative grade civil servants do the same job..

          • Dogsnob

            No they don’t.

    • Noa

      A 30 hour week? Most university 1st degree courses could, and now should be completed in 2 years, saving students £15k.
      The number of universities would reduce commensurately, as would the growing public liabilities currently held by the Student Loan Company for defaulting UK and foreign students.
      Of course we know that universities and HE establishments are operated for the benefit of those institutions and the staff who run them, not to the students who now incur a lifetime’s debt for often useless qualifications.

      Whatever happened to the concept of affordable higher education espoused by the Open University? Its fees are as high as any other university these days?