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How students are mis-sold the benefits of university

17 August 2012

8:41 AM

17 August 2012

8:41 AM

What do you say to an Arts graduate? ‘Big Mac and fries, please!’ I used to laugh at that joke until I was served a Junior Whopper by one of my fellow arts graduates in Edinburgh and ever since then I’ve been suspicious of the story I was sold at school: that going to university takes you into a new league of earning potential. The A-Level results came out yesterday, and anyone who has opened an exams envelope will be familiar with the feeling. That you may as well have the results tattooed on your forehead because they will define the trajectory of your life. But in the 22 years since I left school, the government has added to the pressure. It has made a switch from providing university education to actually selling it. It is saying: yes, you’ll have to take out a government loan. But don’t complain! It’ll be worth it. You will be on average £100,000 better off over a lifetime. This is a rather misleading economic argument, which I look at in my Telegraph column today.

I’m torn because the person making the argument is David Willetts, one of the ministers whom I most admire. As university minister, the poor soul ended up trebling the cap on tuition fees and introducing a system whereby the average graduate ends up with £40k of debt. Hence his £100k figure which makes it (just about) worth it. But it’s worthwhile looking at the source for that, printed last year by the Business, Innovation and Skills department (pdf). It exposes the £100k figure as simplistic nonsense, as someone as smart as Willetts would know. It hides an almost comic range, which goes from £400k for doctors, dentists etc to negative – yes, negative – £15k for men who graduate with degrees in creative design.

As has been pointed out to me on Twitter, university is good for all sorts of non-economic things. Learning is a goal in itself, and I hugely enjoyed my time at the School of Soviet Studies in Glasgow. I got involved with the student newspaper, and found my vocation. I acquired a lifelong love of Russian political art, fiction and poetry. I loved being drawn into the world of warring historians, and debating the significance of the Kronstadt Rebellion. ‘But does this help you in later life?’ our tutor, Prof James White, asked on our last-ever lesson. ‘I’ve thought about this for 30 years and here’s my considered answer. Not one single iota.’

The facts back him up. The BIS study suggests that a guy who read History and Philosophy can expect a negligible ‘graduate premium’ of £1,500 over an entire career – ie, a few quid a week. So for the kind of work that such graduates end up doing, economically speaking, they’re no better off that their colleague who never went to uni. Women do better, apparently, but I failed that test 39 years ago. Right now, one in six graduates are paid less than the average bloke who quit school aged 16. One in five graduates are on less than those who finished school aged 18 (pdf). One in ten recent graduates is on the dole. So the argument that having a degree – in itself – unlocks vast wealth and opportunity? Nonsense.


University is, and remains, a goal which most families dreams of. My parents, neither of whom went to uni, were thrilled that I did so. Everyone wants their kids to do well, and many defined that as graduating from a decent uni and making the most of their lives. But there’s an awful lot of dire courses out there, which serve neither students nor society. It’s very easy for those who didn’t have to pay for their fees to talk about the non-economic benefits of university and how it shouldnt be thought of as a financial transaction. We’re past that stage now. When a student has to stump up £40k for a degree, via a government loan, it is a financial transaction. And right now, there is a danger that ministers are exaggerating the benefits of this transaction.

In my day, government provided university courses. Now, it sells them and there i a crucial difference. Alongside the government’s push for university entrance – and exaggeration of its virtues – comes an unspoken message. That, if you flunked your A-Levels, then: game over. The research which I highlight in my column suggests that, in many walks of life, the prospects for those who don’t get into uni are just as bright (or otherwise) as for graduates. This is something young people aren’t told, perhaps to encourage them to keep their heads down and study. But a teenager borrowing £40k deserves some honest answers about the likely return on that investment.

To Willett’s credit, he’s providing those answers.  Soon he’ll force unis to release graduate employment figures for each course, so students can see if they’re being conned.

His decision to abolish the cap on AAB A-Level students will have created a market for such students, hopefully improving the quality of tuition. In ten years’ time, the higher education will be sorted. But for now, it’s a mess. And to those who say we ought not to worry about the economics of degrees, I’m afraid that the next generation of student doesn’t have the luxury. They’re now paying their own bills.

This is not to say that university is not worth it. For the majority, it’s brilliant and even worth the debt. But the ideal about university is clashing with what people see with their own eyes. A guy on Twitter told me that his brother, who didn’t go to uni, is ‘significantly better off’ than him. A few of my friends, who went to uni, feel shafted: they had fun, but can’t see how the degree added a red cent to their pay packet. When students are looking at a £40k loan, they have to ask even harder questions.

My Telegraph piece is aimed at those people who were not pictured jumping in the air yesterday, but down the pub cursing A-Levels and the schools system. At that age, you’re almost conditioned into thinking that the results will brand you: alpha, beta or epsilon. The truth, as borne out by all the studies, utterly rejects this theory of teenage determinism. For those whose A-Level results preclude university, there is still everything to play for.

PS: Chris Cook of the FT has been publishing brilliant (and, in a fair world, it ought to be award-winning) analysis nailing a metric that I’ve been trying to get at for ages: the direct relationship between poverty and GCSE results. His stuff is here and regional variations here. I have (with Jonathan Jones) been barking up the tree of linking school averages with deprivation: somehow, he found the data for pupils which is far more eloquent.

PPS: The guy who served me a junior whopper is now doing very well, running the music department a school in Scotland.

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