Debate: Is a university degree a rip-off?

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What's going on?

A survey by consumer group Which yesterday revealed high rates of dissatisfaction among current undergraduates, with one in three saying they might never have selected their course if they knew what it would be like.

The survey questioned 26,000 students across 103 of Britain's 164 universities and colleges.

It revealed the average workload for students was 30 hours per week - 10 less than the government's recommended amount.

With costs for tuition now totalling up to £9,000, almost a third of first year undergraduates reported feeling their course didn't offer value for money.

So is university a rip-off?

Case for: No payoff

This won't apply to wannabe doctors, lawyers and engineers. Those careers need a degree, and probably a good one. But for the rest of us? Well, these figures are the tip of the iceberg. Many courses offer a scandalous lack of contact time and require almost no work to fulfil the basic requirements. We've also learned a degree doesn't lead automatically to increased future earnings. Men who study history, for example, get a net gain in later life of around £0. So, without that payoff, and without rigorous learning, what's the return for an investment of around £100,000? A good piss-up?

Case against: Social capital

You can't berate university on the one hand and promote social mobility on the other. Even taking the bleakest indictment of university culture - which the above argument most certainly does - there are benefits that lie outside the field of earnings and contact time. Going to university gives young people the chance to meet others from completely different backgrounds. It fosters friendships that will be valuable throughout life (indeed 'social capital' can be invaluable in the jobs market). We're retiring later and working longer these days. Shouldn't young people be able to spend the best years of their life outside the rat race?

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