Posted by: CS | August 17, 2012

The mis-selling of higher education

By Fraser Nelson

The Telegraph, August 16, 2012: To listen to ministers talk about university education, it is as if Britain has entered an academic arms race with the rest of the world. China’s universities, we’re told, are spewing out six million graduates a year: we must compete, or we’re doomed. In the Blair years, a national target was set: half of all young people ought to enter higher education. They’d have to get into debt, but they were reassured it would be a worthwhile investment. Having some letters after your name meant going further in your careers and earning far more. Those without a degree, by implication, would enter the workplace at a distinct disadvantage.

It is surprising that David Willetts should continue this line of argument, because he is clever enough to know what simplistic nonsense it is. It is understandable for the Universities Minister to be in favour of studying, but the real picture of education in Britain is far more complex. The idea of a binary divide in the career prospects of graduates and non-graduates is not a picture that would be recognised by employers. In many lines of work, those who did not get the A-levels for university now have a future just as bright (or otherwise) as the graduates.

From the moment that John Major started to abolish student grants, the British government has been in the business of selling (rather than simply providing) higher education. Yes, studying costs, runs the argument, but it is an investment: what students pay is a small fraction of what they will get back.
Then came the proliferation of courses and institutions, from BA (Hons) in Golf Management at the University of the Highlands and Islands to Trade Union Studies at Blackpool College. The definition of a degree has changed massively, but the financial argument used for getting one has not changed at all.

When Mr Willetts trebled the cap on university fees, he justified this by arguing that a university degree will “on average boost your earnings by £100,000 over a lifetime”. If true, that would – more or less – justify the average £40,000 of debt which is expected to face those who start college this autumn. But it doesn’t take a A* in A-level maths to suspect that the £100,000 figure disguises a vast range of alternative scenarios, many of which imply disadvantage for those who, for whatever reason, give university a miss.

Last year the Government released a research paper that spelt it out. For doctors and dentists, a degree is a prerequisite. They will earn £400,000 more over a lifetime, as you might expect, having been fully trained for a well-paid profession. But for students admitted to less rigorous degrees, the premium quickly diminishes – especially for men. Those who graduate in the subjects I studied, history and philosophy, can expect to earn a paltry £35 a year more than non-graduates. For graduates in “mass communication” the premium is just £120 a year. But both are better value than a degree in “creative arts”, where graduates can actually expect to earn £15,000 less, over a lifetime, than those who start work aged 18.

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