Monday, September 21, 2009

The University Of Real Life

M Mouse 101

We've blogged Labour's appalling record on higher education 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 the entire population (including 27,000 doing the Major's favourite, the degree in media studies)
  • 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)

  • The average HE participation rate across the OECD is 35%: ours is already 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

  • 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

  • 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.

A madness like this could never continue, and now the money has run out. Reality has finally intruded.

So what to do? How is higher education going to take its share of the pain?

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 £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 £3k), university funding could be bolstered without costing taxpayers a bean. Everybody's happy... well, everybody except the students, that is.

Naturally, there's been a huge outcry from students and the lower tier unis, who reckon it would put a lot of people off university altogether. To which taxpayers might say a good thing too.

But when you read the CBI report, you realise its concerns run far deeper than simply the current waste of taxpayers money.

For one thing, they 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 any more than the Major.

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? Sure. As things stand, the UK has a disproportionate number of the world's top unis - at least according to the Times Higher Education - QS World University rankings:

The names of the 17 UK unis in the world top 100? You don't really need to ask, but they are (in order) Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial, UCL, King's, Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol, LSE, Warwick, Glasgow, Birmingham, Sheffield, York, St Andrews, Nottingham, Southampton. (Hmm... you say... where's Leeds? 104th. And Durham? 122nd. Hmm...). None of our former Polys make the top 500.

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

"...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."

Which could easily be Tyler talking. Or Tyler senior. Or indeed, virtually anyone you meet out here in the real world.

The overwhelming educational priority is not more M Mouse degrees, but to fix the dire state of secondary education for low achieving kids and to help them into the real world of real work.

To summarise, real universities are academically elitist, and we should value and support them for precisely that quality. 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.

Meanwhile, we need a radical improvement in secondary education for less able kids, something we can achieve via real parental choice (ie school vouchers) and awarding higher value vouchers for lower ability pupils.

Footnote warning from HypocrisyWatch - Yes, it's true, Tyler did receive full taxpayer funding for his degrees from not one, but two, of the unis listed above. And yes, he undoubtedly benefited hugely. And yes, he does feel a tad uneasy about that, even though he has since paid humongously sick-making amounts of tax. So yes, he is making some financial contribution back to his old unis, albeit not exactly on a JP Getty scale.

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