By Harry Fone, Grassroots Campaign Manager at the TaxPayers' Alliance
Today marks the end of A-Level results week, a time of elation for some and disappointment for others. It’s no wonder that this is such an emotional week for young hopefuls, given that A-Level grades are the gatekeepers for the supposed holy grail of academic achievement - a university degree.
But the reality is that universities are increasingly failing students, and placing an unnecessary and unsustainable burden on taxpayers. While graduates still do better than those without degrees on average, some do very badly indeed. Saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt, fashion graduates face average salaries of £23,832; while film studies graduates fare little better at £24,878. Both of these are below the average non-graduate salary.
It’s a very bad deal for taxpayers, too. At present, just 20 per cent of 2021-22 starters are expected to pay back their student loans in full. Even with the recent repayment changes, 45 per cent of graduates will fail to fully repay their loans. In fact, the government forecasts the value of outstanding loans to exceed £500 billion by the middle of the century!
Too many young people are being pushed into degrees that they won’t benefit from; that they can’t afford; and that working taxpayers (including other young people!) end up paying for. Here’s some of the modules that are on offer to Britain’s best and brightest starting their degrees this autumn:
What better way to kick off (tee off?) your degree in Golf Management, at the University of Birmingham than with a module on The Golf Industry in the 21st century? At the end of this course you will, apparently, be able to “locate the game through an exploration and analysis of its socio-historical development, as well as the contexts that most affect participation.” You’ll need £9,250 a year for this degree.
This module aims “to introduce you to the ‘sociological imagination’.” It has a focus on “knowledge and power with an emphasis on the study of relations between individuals and groups in modern industrial societies.” That imagination might perhaps be put to better use, especially given the Sociology degree of which it is part costs £9,250 a year.
Westminster types would be forgiven for thinking that City, University of London was mainly a place for churning out BBC producers. They offer an array of further courses, such as English Literature which includes the tantalisingly named module “Empire and its Discontents.” This module “develops your understanding of the ways in which empire and its legacies have shaped and continue to shape Anglophone writing and culture.” You, or rather the taxpayer, would have to stump up £9,250 (it seems a pattern is emerging here).
Swansea University is one of many institutions where American Studies is on offer, and for the bargain of just £9,000 a year, you can study a history of American film for one of your modules. As part of this you will study Pulp Fiction as an “an ironic deployment of narrative strategies.” Given this cult classic is available to rent for £1.99 on Amazon Prime, young scholars would probably be advised to weigh up value for money.
As part of an Acting Degree at York St John University, you’ll take part in a module called “Theatre for Social Change”. You will “address the social responsibilities of artists and theatre makers” and “will engage in both academic research and practical workshops to explore the theory and practice of using theatre for social change.” Society may be changing, but the price tag for wishy-washy courses rarely does. You guessed it - £9,250 a year.
This module is part of a degree in International Development from the University of Leeds. Given how extraordinarily wasteful international aid spending is, a degree which focused on how to best use taxpayer money abroad would actually be well worth doing. Unfortunately the modules listed focus more on bashing Britain than getting bang for your buck.
What is to be done?
The problem isn’t necessarily the fact that these modules exist. The problem is that they come at potential expense of the taxpayer; while doing little for the career prospects of the graduate.
The government has lowered the repayment threshold to £25,000 and increased the repayment period to forty years, a move we welcomed. But ministers should and could go further. By further lowering the repayment threshold and increasing the repayment rate from 9 per cent to 15 per cent, university applicants would be faced with an economic choice that reflects the realities of the real world. And what’s more, it would lower the burden on the young people who are instead planning to go into training and then the world of work. When we talk about the challenges facing prospective university students at this time, let’s not forget about the millions of young working taxpayers too.