Thursday, June 05, 2008

University Drop-Outs

Many degrees are now virtually worthless

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) has just published its latest figures on university participation and drop-out rates. The headlines are:

  • One-in-four students now fail to obtain a degree (23% of those that started a degree course in 05-06 have either dropped out, transferred to a sub-degree course, or are projected to fail outright)
  • The worst universities by far are the old Polytechnics and FE colleges- at Bolton University, 49.5% fail to get a degree
  • The proportion of drop-outs/failures is increasing - despite the £1bn spent by government trying to reduce it
  • Social engineering continues - most of HESA's report is focused on participation by "disadvantaged groups", rather than on the quality of output

We've blogged Labour's half-baked policies for higher education many times (eg see here and here). A brief recap:

  1. Taxpayers now spend £12bn pa on higher education; the students themselves spend a whole lot more
  2. There are 2.3m students, or 4% of the entire population (including 27,000 doing the Major's favourite, the degree in media studies)
  3. The 50% participation target is "aspirational" - ie entirely arbitrary (admitted to the PAC by the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England - see this blog)
  4. The average HE participation rate across the OECD is 35%: ours is already 40% and heading for 50%
  5. Thousands of graduates now do non-graduate jobs, and that number is growing rapidly- their M Mouse degrees have simply not equipped them to do anything else (according to HESA, 75% - yes, 75% - of 2002-3 graduates were still in non-graduate jobs four years after graduation; what's more, 26% weren't in full-time jobs of any kind
  6. The average financial return to a degree is plummeting - according to PWC, the gross return to an Arts degree is now only about £30 grand, 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

Yes, yes, I know. Higher education is about so much more than just financial well-being. There's the intrinsic value of study - the joy of , say, a BA in Football Studies at the University of Bedford. And then there's all that "growing up space" unis give young people away from home for the first time (aka drink, drugs and sex).

But that isn't the way the government has sold this whole nonsense to taxpayers. They've told us that we need to "invest" in "education" or we will be crushed by India and China.

The truth is that Labour has always seen education as social engineering: everything else is so much spin. But even in social engineering terms, the expansion of higher education has been a flop. Without good state schooling (long ago dumbed down by... er, social engineering), less academic kids will not benefit from higher education. Instead, they end up dropping out.

Either that, or they end up with degrees which have absolutely no economic value whatsoever. But which have cost them a stack of lost earnings, and landed them with a pile of debt.

The Tories should scrap this ridiculous target on Day One.

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