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Wednesday 20 June 2012

Higher Education: Benefits, Costs and Propaganda

“Education, education, education.”
For many years, young people in this country have been brought up with Blair’s mantra of “education, education, education” ringing in their ears, and one form of education in particular – university, or, more strictly speaking, higher education – has been championed as the path to upward social mobility and prosperity. With this view in mind, policy has been directed towards the mass expansion of higher education (HE) – its ‘massification’ as some term it – with Labour having set the arbitrary goal of by 2010 persuading 50% of young people to study towards and achieve a degree. Initial movement towards this target proved to be more sluggish than the Blair administration had intended, leading to a rescoping of the 50% target so that it was broadened to apply to any “higher education qualification” which could encompass sub-degree qualifications such as the misnamed foundation degrees (i.e. a vocationally-focused qualification equating to the first two years of degree study), HE diplomas and certificates.

As time progressed, the constant repetition of the message that HE would lead to higher lifetime earnings, a better lifestyle and social mobility, was taken up by much of the mass media as well as schools, colleges and universities. This was accompanied by a rush away from manufacturing and the traditional extractive industries in the deluded belief that the key to wealth generation lay primarily with a vastly expanded service sector, and the UK’s participation in what the Leitch Report termed the ‘global knowledge economy.’

Children, knowing no better, came to internalise this message, and many academics, who have no such excuse, did so too. Yet, what underpinned this policy? What solid data was there to justify this claim that obtaining a degree, or an “HE qualification”, led to greatly improved earnings and life chances? What does the data suggest with respect to graduates who have come through the system in recent years? How do their prospects fare with respect to those of earlier generations? What, if anything, has this policy achieved?

Academic inflation and the debased currency of a degree
Many recent graduates will of course be able to provide a personal answer to a number of these questions, but what is striking about the whole thrust of this policy, often badged as “widening participation”, is the manner in which it has debased the currency of a degree. This debasement has taken two forms: firstly, the rapid expansion in the number of graduates has lessened the market value of a degree owing to their oversupply; secondly, the academic content of many degrees has been downgraded to cope with the inadequacies of the contemporary schooling system, which has left a certain proportion of the current undergraduate body with inadequate skills. The marketisation of HE is likely to exacerbate these trends still further.

For the past couple of decades, we have witnessed the annual headlines relating the latest year-on-year increase in the grades of GCSEs and A Levels, and yet those with direct experience of working in the university sector have not noted an increase in the calibre of the student intake. One of the reasons for this trend is of course the modularisation of A Levels, the ability to retake the said modules on several occasions, and the gearing of teaching towards passing the test, rather than towards the development of critical engagement with, and internalisation of, the subject matter of A Levels. Michael Gove has however announced that he intends to tackle these problems, with a move back towards a more rigorous approach based upon examinations rather than coursework, and a limited opportunity to resit.

We need more mathematicians: the sums don't add up!
Despite the fact that it was recently reported by the CBI that only one in five jobs in the UK are said to require graduate-level skills, the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) issued a report earlier this month calling for increased government investment in the university sector, claiming that this was necessitated by the UK sliding down the international league in the production of graduates, whilst China and India are investing heavily in increasing the supply. It highlights the particular need for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates, singling out mechanical engineering in particular. However, other evidence suggests that a significant proportion of graduates in these disciplines are unable to find employment in a sphere related to their subject, so what is being claimed appears to diverge from reality. Why should this be so? If it is the case, as the UCU claims, that employers are reporting a shortage of STEM graduates, should not more effort be put into helping match graduates with appropriate employment opportunities near the end of their studies, rather than simply increasing the number of graduates? If STEM graduates find themselves underemployed upon graduation, this is neither good for them as individuals, nor for employers nor for society at large; it represents a shocking waste of potential, as well as of time and money.

Another debatable claim contained in the UCU report, was that state investment in higher education should be increased because it is highly cost effective: whereas it claims that it costs the state an average of £18,800 to educate a graduate, the return in increased earnings over a lifetime is said to be £180,000. If this were true, the Government would provide higher education for free, but, as should be evident, it plainly is not the case. Even grander claims were being made about the increased earning potential conferred by graduate status in the early 2000s, with one figure widely bandied around from 2001 onwards claiming that graduates earn circa £400,000 more than non-graduates over a working lifetime. This eye-watering figure was employed to bolster the Blair administration’s Aimhigher initiative which was launched in 2004, but this statistic was, unsurprisingly, arrived at through rather dubious means, based as it was upon the highly selective interpretation of data relating to a cohort of graduates born in the early 1950s. Needless to say, the prospects that faced such graduates, who then comprised but a tiny fraction of the population, differed considerably from the massive numbers (and proportion) of graduates coming out of the system today. Our economy has also been eviscerated in the intervening period, with job insecurity becoming the norm and lifetime career structures and their earning potential destroyed by the opening up of the economy to full-blooded globalisation.

Raising the bar, destroying the premium: the betrayal of the Blair generation
One of the stated objectives of the last Labour Government’s mass expansion of higher education was the promotion of social mobility, the opening up of opportunities for young people with no familial experience of university education. It was thus touted as a route into the professions and, more generally, to prosperity. However, as has already been alluded to in the reference to the low percentage of job roles requiring graduate-level skills, this approach was at best wrongheaded, and at worst, immoral. Rather than serving as a means of social advancement, the acquisition of a degree has often led to young people from these backgrounds entering the same types of roles that they would have done had they left school following the completion of A Levels or GCSEs, with the same types of salaries. An oversupply of graduates has led to a lessening of the wage premium offered by employers, with many roles and occupations that were once open to individuals with a handful of decent O Level passes, now demanding a degree. Likewise, graduate professions have raised the bar, now often demanding Masters or Doctorates, resulting in more debt for the student, more years spent out of the labour market, and a lower return on their investment. Academic inflation has run rampant, greatly devaluing the currency of a degree, the cost of which has simultaneously increased significantly.

What then, is higher education for? For anyone who would wish to study because they are motivated by the love of their given subject, I would say take the opportunity, but do not expect it to provide you with a route to a better life and higher earnings, because very often it will not.

Special interest groups, distortion and the need for clarity and reform
It seems clear that one of the primary motivations underlying the UCU report is the understandable desire of UCU members to protect their livelihoods. Owing to the rapid expansion of the university sector, higher education institutions are now big employers playing significant roles in the economies of the towns and cities in which they are located. Any downsizing in the sector could thus have a notable negative impact upon some local economies. For the past three years, pay in universities has effectively been frozen (with the egregious exception of university vice-chancellors, a number of whom earn well in excess the salary of the Prime Minister), staff numbers have been cut and the radical overhaul in the tuition fees system has led to a great deal of uncertainty with respect to the viability of some institutions in their current form. It is understandable therefore, that this report should seek to forward the claim that an increase in funding for higher education should be made a national priority, but it is precisely for these reasons that the conclusions it draws should be treated with a healthy degree of scepticism, given their tendentious nature. 

Should higher education be for the benefit of students, the country and the economy, or for that of vested interests within the university sector? Unpalatable as it may be, it would seem that our higher education sector suffers from overcapacity, and that rather than seeking to increase absolute numbers of graduates and the proportion of young people gaining degrees, we should instead be looking to redeploy staff in higher education elsewhere in the economy. The big question of course, is where? Young people should be given better opportunities in FE colleges, learning useful skills that will make them marketable and afford them a decent living. The one thing that does seem rational in the UCU report, is its emphasis upon protecting STEM subjects. To secure a meaningful economic recovery we need to harness the full potential of our graduates in these disciplines through promoting a hi-tech research and manufacturing based economy. We need to create jobs that generate new wealth, not jobs in the service sector that are parasitic upon the recycling of existing capital, or borrowing it from the international money markets.

Higher education in this country needs to be reprofiled and retooled. Young people must be provided with the most objective information available with respect to the likely implications of studying a certain degree; the doors that it will open, and those that it will not, together with genuine information relating to salary expectations and career progression. Contrary to offering a leg-up to children from working-class backgrounds, the policies of the last Labour Government and its successor have spun them an unrealistic yarn and led to everyone running faster to effectively stand still. This, coupled with Labour’s (and the Condem’s) vigorous pursuit of globalisation, leading to increased job insecurity and downward pressure on wages, has constituted a betrayal of the Blair generation.

Whether £27,000 of debt for tuition fees, coupled with many thousands more for living expenses incurred whilst studying, and the thousands potentially lost through not working during this period are adjudged to be worthwhile in obtaining a degree, must be left to the individual, but the decisions that they take should be based upon objective information and evidence, not upon the self-serving data supplied by the higher education sector itself, or by government. Cynics might say that getting students to pay for a degree is a cost-effective means of removing them from the unemployment statistics for three to five years whilst simultaneously making them pay for the privilege. 


  1. One of the things that always strikes me, is the dumbing down of exams.

    When I took my O-levels in 1981, the pass rate percentage (for a C pass)was about 45% to 48%. It is now 18% for a GCSE.

    My wife works ofr one of the major exam boards. They have a problem with one of their exam papers. It is harder than the competition, and the competition sell theirs as being easier. Teachers are always under pressure to hit targets and achieve league status.

    So, which exam paper do they choose, the academically hard one, or the one that makes their figures look good? And what does the exam board that my wife works for do? Carry on producing a challenging exam paper that doesn't sell, or dumb it down?

    It's a race to the bottom.

    1. An interesting story from your wife Road Hog. The dumbing down of GCSEs is undeniable. They in themselves were something of a debased version of the O Level when they came in, fusing as they did that qualification with CSEs. We who sat O Levels of course only passed if we obtained an A to C grade, whereas today, apparently, those who get grades D to G (did Spinal Tap have an influence on this downward equivalent of "going up to 11"? If I remember rightly our grades only went as low as E, and that was an abysmal fail) think that they have achieved something!

      What you say with respect to the pressure on teachers is true, so to get around this problem we need rigorous standardisation where exams are toughened up so that they actually signify a real level of achievement, and teachers are not penalised for doing the job that they ought to be doing. The same holds true for A Levels. The extent to which A-level pupils are spoonfed these days is staggering.

      Until there is fundamental reform, the "race to the bottom" will continue as you note.

  2. A couple of remarks, one related to the article and one to your comment.

    Examiners are not allowed to detract marks/scores for spelling mistakes in exams these days.

    O-level grades actually went lower than E-grade, you actually had U-grade, which was so bad that it was ungraded.

    Later in life, this taught me an important lesson (I'll get to the connection in a moment). One, that in employment, managers were like teachers, you had good and bad. I always wondered why I did well in some subjects and so bad in others.

    Later in life I realised, that you had bosses and managers. Bosses made your workplace life hell and managers encouraged you and got the best out of you, plus made you enthusiastic.

    Anyway, back to the exams. I think that teachers are much like bosses and managers, some manage to make the subject interesting and impart information and some just go through the routine.

    I got a B pass in my O-level physics, which I think back in the day, meant that I had a fairly good understanding of the sciences. I got a U in my O-level chemistry, which I believe is a fairly similar subject to physics. I always ask myself, was I that good at physics and that rubbish chemistry or was it down to the teacher.

    I think I know the answer.

    1. Although we all make occasional errors of spelling and grammar, it is unforgivable that the basic technique and craft of writing is not assessed by GCSEs. Creativity should come later.

      Ah yes, I remember U-grade, but discounted it as an abysmal fail.

      Your observation regarding teachers and managers/bosses is spot on! I have happened upon both types in school and workplace settings. As for our respective experiences of O-level chemistry and physics, they appear to have been uncannily similar. Our chemistry teacher destroyed the O-level group that he was taking, because he did not know what he was talking about, and could not balance equations himself. I often wonder how long he lasted in the job. It is true that our children are often let down by poor teachers.

  3. Education system in India has come of age.I mean if we look back at early 90s, there used to limited number of universities. But now, evertwhere it's wild fire.I mean, primary or higher education in India should not be comprised as well with institutes & private colleges mushrooming everywhere...

    1. India is wisely investing in education and providing not only a sense of optimism for its people, but real improvements in their living conditions. The general welfare of its people should be at the forefront of any national government worthy of the name.

  4. Three obvious comments come to mind :

    1. You comment re the UCU report 'but it is precisely for these reasons that the conclusions it draws should be treated with a healthy degree of scepticism, given their tendentious nature. '

    Tendentious is too kind a word to describe the report you have precised. The correct word is 'self serving'. The UCU will always utilise skewed analysis to generate statistics that back up their demands that everything will be fine in the world if governments will just throw yet more money at their sector.

    2. In other parts of the world there is a substantial 'private' sector providing higher education through private colleges and universities. This always provides usefull competition for the public sector since if a private provider can provide a 'good quality degree' for £xyz then questions are rightly asked if a state provider either charges more or charges the same but provides a less well respected degree. Countries such as America, India etc have large private sectors. In this country the only private providers that come to mind are :
    a. Private language schools for adults (my sister teaches in one in Brighton). These provide a specialised short term package and the qualification is well below a degree.
    b. Buckingham University.
    c. Various 'brass name plate' colleges which take fees from overseas students and are in fact just fronts for immigration scams. The 'students' disappear on arrival.

    3. The Blair package was very bad news for those who did not get into higher education. They were made to feel like second class citizens. Many employment opportunities were closed to them. As just a short list Nursing, Teaching, the Police, Armed Forces officers are all becoming, or are, graduate only areas.
    I do not have much time for Gordon 'McStalin' Brown but he had the brains to realise that 'dumping' approx 50% of school leavers was insanity and that the country was suffering from skills shortages in retail, manufacturing and construction. He greatly accelerated the rolling out of 'modern apprenticeships' even though in some sectors this will have displeased Labour's trade union paymasters. The availibility of modern apprenticeships is helping to fill the skills shortages. Many young people are avoiding youth unemployment through these schemes. A colleague I work with, a joiner, has put three CITB apprentices through his business. Two have graduated and one will be graduating in the next few weeks.

    Ivan Winters
    Democratic Naationalist

    1. The UCU is certainly self-serving Ivan, and gets involved in all sorts of tangential political activity that bears no relation whatsoever to the well-being of its members, and when it does concentrate on workplace issues, often insists on balloting for strike action after submitting ludicrous pay claims. The SWP looms large in its leadership I’m afraid to say.

      Different states have different models of university funding and provision, and one deleterious impact of having a privatised or a pseudo-market system such as we now possess here is that students come to think of themselves first and foremost as customers. The ‘customer’ wants a degree; a good degree of course, irrespective of the merit of their work or ability, and this is what marketised or pseudo-marketised systems promise to give them. Road Hog has highlighted how in the case of GCSEs the examination board with the greater academic integrity has lost out to less scrupulous rivals because of its rigour, thus it is increasingly with our universities. Oxbridge or course would never succumb to such a debasement of academic standards, but there are a number of institutions for which such scruples are less important. As it is, I think that we shall see a number of universities in England downsizing considerably in the near future, with some possibly closing altogether or being taken over.

      Your observation regarding the new ‘graduate professions’ introduced under Blair and Brown is a good one. Many public sector roles were upgraded in this fashion, and today, you will even find universities offering degree courses in basic administration designed to safeguard a lowly-paid clerical job.

      The idea of ‘modern apprenticeships’ does possess merit though. It was a great shame that many apprenticeships were scrapped in the 80s, so this is a form of training deficit that did, and still does, need to be addressed. It’s interesting to hear about your friend’s positive experience with young people being trained via this scheme.

  5. it was always believed, when i was an apprentice, that companies valued years of experience over raw qualifications.
    i wonder if that is any less relevant today.

    1. The right sort of experience is always needed Bilbo. A combination of the two could be ideal though.


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