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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.

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