What Price Learning? The University Debate

Part 1: Higher education has never been more contentious. In the first part of our debate, recent graduate Amol Rajan argues that far too many young people are wasting precious years in a system that is fatally flawed
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The Independent Online

It may sound like a body set up solely for the benefit of satire, but the Office for Fair Access (Offa) has just been reinvigorated.

Nick Clegg announced last week that universities charging more than £6,000 per annum will have to sign new "access agreements" with this quango, first set up in 2004, to ensure that undergraduates come from broad social backgrounds. Failure to do so will lead to private sanction and public humiliation. In other words, our great bastions of learning will have to make Offa an offer it can't refuse.

The story is further proof that Tony Blair is not in office but remains in power. It resonates because it is part of a package of measures by which Mr Clegg hopes to become recognised as a tribune of the poor, his claim on that role having received a battering during protests last year over the impending rise in top-up fees. As my esteemed colleague Steve Richards wrote last week, Clegg's reputation has yet to recover fully.

Those riots reflect the central political fact of modern Britain, which is indebtedness. The burden imposed on young people by the profligacy of their parents' generation will dominate this Parliament and the next. Universities, and restrictions on access to them, have become the most potent symbols of this inter-generational injustice, and those riots were a first public ventilation of the anger it has generated. So deep and widespread is this anger that, in recent months, universities have hardly left the front pages.

The lead story in last Tuesday's Times carried the headline: "Lower the bar for poor students, colleges told". This month, guidance published by the Russell Group of leading universities made clear that students seeking university places should be equipped with traditional academic subjects, rather than "soft", vocational courses. New figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service predicted a record number of applicants – and a record number of rejected hopefuls. A 5.1 per cent increase in demand, combined with a freeze on the number of places, means that 750,000 students will go for 450,000 places. Last month, KPMG announced that it was setting up a four-year accountancy (BSc) course at Durham University, whereby students from poor backgrounds would be subsidised through university, and then required to work for them afterwards. Each year, we get stories about applications to the Open University "rocketing". Last year was no exception. In 2009 alone, applications were up by a third.

All these stories, and the heat they generated, were set against the backdrop of those protests. Aside from pertaining to higher education, they share a common characteristic: they describe initiatives to increase the number of university entrants. That is, they are premised on the notion that the more young people going into higher education, the better.

But this idea is a delusion. Moreover, it is ruining thousands of lives every year. Our whole approach to higher education has accepted the belief that too few people are going to university, and that by increasing the numbers in higher education we will benefit not only the students, but our society and economy as well. In fact, the opposite is true.

Far too many young people are wasting precious years in a university system taken hostage by the cult of egalitarianism, when in fact they could be doing something useful with their brains. In so doing, they are draining increasingly scarce resources from those who genuinely should be in the academy. And the effect of targets such as that set by New Labour – 50 per cent of students to enter higher education – has been to push ever-more young people down a dead-end route, while stigmatising other wholly legitimate routes into employment, such as apprenticeships.

It necessarily follows that the wrong sort of people are going to university, and that the whole purpose of university has been bastardised to accommodate them. That line of argument doesn't go down well in metropolitan circles. Yet the failure to say it is causing a social catastrophe, and although it is the very height of political incorrectness to express it, the case for a drastic reduction in university numbers has to be made clear.

What is that case? The first half is practical. Although most middle-class parents are loath to admit it, for a growing number of undergraduates, university is a phenomenally expensive waste of time. Unless their parents are upper-middle class, the average student can expect to come out of university with a debt of £27,000. That is disregarding, of course, the earnings that they might have made in those years when they were rolling spliffs and pursuing freshers in the student union. Even if they didn't earn the national median income of £26,000, had they worked for three years they might still have earned a solid, say, £45,000. Add that to the £27,000 debt, and you're talking about a big investment.

As Mary Ann Sieghart argued on these pages last Monday, they won't be able to afford a house until they are 37, unless their parents help them out – and then, too, only if they've been able to get a job. But unemployment is highest among 18- to 24-year-olds, so that is quite an assumption. Instead, these students are waiting three or four years before making a first, tentative step on to the career ladder – presuming they don't drop out first, as 7.2 per cent (and rising) do.

And what do they get for this vast investment, aside from a few sexually transmitted diseases and a taste for acid house? In many cases, not much. It is true that degrees can boost earning power, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's latest "Education at a Glance" report, published last September, suggests that the graduate premium – the salary boost that graduates get as compared with non-graduates – is higher than average in Britain. But that premium tends to apply to those at the very best universities, not those below.

Nobody of my generation, six years out of university, could reasonably doubt that aside from in a few regimented professions – law, medicine, engineering – very few graduates pursue careers which required the degree they studied. Data on the relationship between degree courses and subsequent careers is notoriously burdened with caveats, but the Higher Education Statistics Authority estimates that, even of those increasingly rare souls who manage to get a job within six months of graduating, 37.6 per cent say their degree was not a necessary requirement.

Yet even this practical argument against higher education is premised on the idea that applying to university is an economic cost-benefit exercise. Of course, all financial transactions incur costs and benefits. Since the introduction of market forces into universities – accelerated though not begun by New Labour – the costs have inflated enormously, while for many the benefits have shrivelled. But the second half of the case against increasing university numbers, the stronger half, rejects the idea that higher education is a money matter.

It is based on a deeper, philosophical point, which is that an increasing number of those who are now applying to university aren't really applying to university at all. They are applying to a holding station for immature adults who want to delay their entry into the world of adult responsibility, either because they are lazy or because they are scared of it. It was always thus, those in their forties and fifties might retort. But it wasn't. Not to this extent. To understand why this is the case, we have to make a brief excursion into history.

"The interest of the state in education", wrote Bertrand Russell in Sceptical Essays, his seminal collection first published in 1928, "is very recent. It did not exist in antiquity or the Middle Ages." That is undoubtedly true. Moreover, the welcome collapse of stringent class divisions in post-war Britain, and the hesitant march of meritocracy, accelerated the trend. Mass education – particularly the hallowed academy – was seen as a marker of social progress; it followed that a just society must educate all children to a high standard. What with the highest standard of education being in university, an expansion of that sector became the ambition of every government since Clement Attlee's.

Thus equipped with noble motives, successive administrations oversaw an increase in student numbers that was exponential, rather than incremental. The Robbins Report, of the Committee on Higher Education, was published in 1963. It recommended vast expansion of universities, and – crucially – the relabelling of Colleges of Advanced Technology as universities – one of the first of many moves to redefine the purpose of universities. In the early 1960s, the number of students in higher education hovered around 200,000. By 1990, it had risen to 600,000. By 1996, the number had reached 1.6 million. It seemed inevitable that the Dearing Report, published in 1997, would recommend a fundamental rethinking of higher education by suggesting students paid tuition fees. This fast-growing sector had to be funded somehow, after all.

But during this vast expansion, something precious was lost, and something dreadful was gained. To justify tuition fees, Sir Ronald Dearing couched the role of university in the language of economics: "On average, those with higher-education qualifications currently in the labour market enjoy a significant and sustained private rate of return to their investment." This reduced students from knowledge-thirsty youngsters to customers demanding value for money.

At the same time, the very purpose of university – which is to foster academic excellence by transmitting knowledge from one generation to another – was being forgotten. In The Idea of a University, published in 1854, Cardinal John Henry Newman referred to university as "a place of concourse, whither students come from every quarter for every kind of knowledge. You cannot have the best of every kind everywhere; you must go to some great city or emporium for it." He defended the academy specifically on the grounds of "inutility" – that is, a value apart from economics.

But Dearing and his political masters promoted utility above Newman's inutility. They did so because they paid obeisance to the post-war cult of egalitarianism, with its laudable motive of extending access to the poor. What they didn't realise was that their only means of extending access was by redefining education.

Egalitarianism is fundamentally opposed to discrimination of any kind. But discrimination on the basis of ability had been the historic foundation of the academy. The two are therefore incompatible: either universities oppose egalitarianism by discriminating on the basis of ability; or they refuse to discriminate, and so stop being universities.

This latter vandalism has, I am afraid to say, been the chief consequence of the rapid expansion of the university sector. An "all must have degrees" culture has required a redefinition of "degree", and a system founded on the idea of intellectual elitism has been recast as a vehicle for mass participation. We have gone from a system founded on the principle that university is for the brightest, regardless of background, to one in which university is for all, regardless of ability.

This means that, each year, thousands of non-academic students are packed off to do three or four years of... nothing much. But the exponential growth in university numbers, and with it the redefinition of "degree" to include such notorious absurdities as golf course management, pig enterprise management, and Madonna studies, has produced just such a situation. What is worse – as Richard Garner, this paper's education editor, has long argued – it has deterred many students who didn't excel academically from applying themselves to other forms of training to which they are better suited, such as apprenticeships.

I can see the disgust this argument will arouse, targeted as it is against 50 years of education policy. Am I not ignoring the fact that in those 50 years, university went from being the preserve of the wealthy to an opportunity for all? Would I rather the poor were kept out of higher education, as once they were?

Nonsense. The proper education of the poor is a passion of mine, on which I have previously written in these pages, and to which I devote much of my life outside the office. Of course any financial impediment which prevents the poor from gaining access to opportunities otherwise preserved for the rich is morally repugnant, and it cannot be doubted that for all the talk of bursaries, potential fees of £9,000 represent an insuperable obstacle.

But the deeper malevolence lies in a school system which remains the single most shameful aspect of life in our country. The conflation of schooling and skilling, so aggressively promoted in the past two decades, is unforgivable, because it pushes skills on the poor while preserving schools for the rich. But universities cannot remedy that more foundational problem. And it's the poor who have most to lose from three years spent acquiring debt for a degree they don't need and won't use. It's the poor against whom the biggest fraud is being perpetrated: told that a degree course from a university will help to emancipate them from poverty, they are finding in ever-increasing numbers that said degree is leaving them trapped in it.

But then am I, a relatively recent Oxbridge graduate, not denying others what was given to me? I have more sympathy with this argument. From those of us fortunate enough to have enjoyed world-class academic opportunities, and profited from the social capital acquired by rubbing shoulders with the progeny of our country's great public schools, the case for sending fewer students to university must seem cruel and insensitive.

Yet that is changing the discussion from what I am saying to where I am speaking from. And the point is not that we would deny such privileges to others; it is that university in the sense we experienced it is losing its meaning. University is a privilege, not a right; but the collapse of this distinction means a growing number of those entering higher education are not really being educated at all. Instead, they are chasing phantoms.

And which is the more odious? Returning university to its original function, of raising hopes and firing imaginations through the transmission of knowledge – or shepherding ever-more young people into a system debauched by egalitarian impulses, from which they may emerge with spirit-crippling debt, useless degrees, and a bevy of STDs?

I cannot see how any compassionate person could defend the latter; and if they cannot, they should be engaged in combat with the prevailing orthodoxy. If that means staff at the hallowed Office for Fair Access must be met with their P45s, so be it. The only people who should decide what fair access means are admissions tutors.

Education is generally defended on the grounds that it benefits the many, not the few. The curiosity of our current system is that universities will be of greater use to the many only when we relearn the habit of garlanding the few.