The University Of Real Life


M Mouse 101

Do taxpayers get value for money from higher education? We've blogged the concerns many times (see all posts gathered here). In summary:

    • Taxpayers now spend £12bn pa on higher education, up around 50% in real terms since 1997; the students themselves spend a whole lot more

    • There are 2.3m students, or 4% of our entire population (including 27,000 doing that old favourite, the degree in media studies)

    • Labour's much-hyped 50% participation target is no more than "aspirational" - ie it is entirely arbitrary (admitted to the Public Accounts Committee by the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England - see this blog)

    • The average HE participation rate across the OECD is 35%: ours is now nearly 40% and heading for 50%

    • Courses have been dumbed down and grading standards slashed - the proportion gaining first class degrees has nearly doubled under Labour (see this blog)

    • Thousands of graduates now do non-graduate jobs, and that number is growing rapidly - their so-called Mickey Mouse degrees have simply not equipped them to do anything else; according to the Higher Education Statistics Authority, three and a half years after graduation only 74% of 2002/03 graduates were in full-time jobs; and of them, a quarter were not in graduate jobs.

    • The average financial return to a degree is plummeting - according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the gross return to an Arts degree is now only about £30,000, and that takes no account of the costs of study and the earnings foregone - net net an average Arts degree almost certainly reduces lifetime wealth.

These concerns have been growing for years, but now the money has run out, they can no longer be ignored. Reality has finally intruded.

So what to do? How should higher education take its share of the cuts?

One obvious step is to charge students the full cost of their government funded loans. That has already been proposed in the TPA/IOD cuts paper and the earlier cuts paper from Reform. It would save taxpayers about £1.2bn pa.

Now the CBI is recommending the same thing, only it would increase university fees at the same time. If fees were increased to say £5,000 pa (from the current maximum of £3,225), university funding could be bolstered without costing taxpayers any more.

Naturally, there's been an outcry from students, and also from the lower tier universities (largely the old polytechnics), who reckon it would put a lot of people off university altogether. To which taxpayers might well say a good thing too.

But the CBI report highlights concerns that run far deeper than the simple waste of taxpayers' money.

For one thing, employers are very concerned about the dearth of so-called STEM graduates - ie people who've chosen to do the "hard" subjects in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths. It seems the CBI does not value media studies nearly as much.

Second, the CBI worry that the present cap on fees is starving our top unis of the resources they need to remain world leaders. World leaders? Yes - as things stand, the UK has a disproportionate number of the world's top universities - at least according to the Times Higher Education - QS World University rankings:

The CBI reckons it is far more important to sustain these top universities, than to continue the dogmatic pursuit of Labour's arbitrary 50% participation target. Indeed, it goes further:

"[The CBI] does not believe that the push to increase participation in higher education to 50 per cent of 18-30 year olds in England and Wales should continue to be a target in the current economic environment. The priority should be to ensure that those who go to university continue to receive a quality education. This should go hand-in-hand with greater efforts to deal with educational disadvantage at the secondary school level, and to support young people through apprentice and other vocational training programmes."

So to summarise, our top universities are always going to be academically elitist, and we should value and support them for precisely that quality. To ensure sufficent resourcing, they should charge realistically high fees. And the students who attend them should be expected to pay the full cost of their funding: after all, they're the ones who'll reap the bulk of the benefits in later life.

Meanwhile, our less able children must be given a much better deal at the secondary level, with schools that prepare them adequately for the real world of real work.

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