Aditya Chakrabortty is playing fast and loose with the lives of millions of students and potential students (What the great degree rip-off means for graduates: low pay and high debt, 19 April). His major animus is turned against David Willetts, but as a former Labour higher education minister and now university vice-chancellor, I equally take strong issue with his argument: in brief, that there is a grand conspiracy between the government and vice-chancellors to mis-sell students higher education courses.
Firstly, we need to deal with this misnomer of graduate debt. You only repay if you are in work and earning over £21,000 a year, and if you have not repaid after 30 years the debt is written off. If you were to advertise those terms on the high street, people would rush to sign up. With this financial package, recruitment to university has risen across the board, and fastest among students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
Chakrabortty then suggests that Willetts misled the public by recalculating the graduate earnings premium from £400,000 to £100,000 in 2010. He did not, because these figures were calculated in two different ways. The first compared the average lifetime earnings of someone with a degree to the population as a whole, which includes people with no qualifications at all. The second compared the average earnings of graduates to the average earnings of people with two A-levels or the equivalent. There was no reduction in the premium. And the most recent figures suggest an average net graduate premium of £168,000 for men and £252,000 for women.
The claim that “there is no point in creating more graduates unless you have more graduate jobs” is not backed up by evidence. The latest report of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills projects continued growth in high-skilled jobs up to 2024. And the Destination of Leavers of Higher Education longitudinal survey shows that more than 80% of graduates are in professional employment three years after completing their degree. Even if argued on purely utilitarian terms, ignoring the range of other benefits of higher education for civic engagement, social capital and the spread of knowledge in society, higher education is, for the vast majority, a good investment.
The instinct demonstrated by Chakrabortty to restrict the benefits of higher education to an elite minority is fundamentally wrong: bad for individuals who would be excluded from higher education and bad for society as a whole.
Vice-chancellor, University of Bedfordshire; higher education minister 2005-08
Does Aditya Chakrabortty really want higher education to be only available to match the demand for so-called “graduate-level jobs”, and so limited to those who seek those jobs? Just because the labour market value of a degree might be reduced by supply exceeding demand, it doesn’t mean that the broader value of higher education both to the individual and society at large is similarly reduced – as, indeed, he hints in his penultimate paragraph. And just because governments have misrepresented the economic value of a degree doesn’t reduce the value of higher education in itself. Indeed, governments would have been more honest to talk up the social, rather than the economic, value of a university education. Perhaps what is most upsetting to Aditya is the fact that we, as a society, have become more instrumental in our worldview and can only be persuaded to sup at the fountain of public good if promised economic gain, sneaking intrinsic value through the back door, as it were.
Aditya Chakrabortty’s article deserves thunderous applause. He’s partly right in his remark that Mr Willetts owes an apology to tens of thousands of indebted graduates, stuck in low-paying jobs that don’t use their expensively acquired skills. I say “partly right” because I wouldn’t dignify their expensive acquisitions by calling them “skills”. What a graduate has is education acquired at an institution that pursues knowledge for its own sake. This is all very well for young people of independent means and for those who are a one-way bet for a professional or academic career, but for everyone else who has to work for a living, the most important priority ought to be the acquisition of useful skills which will enable them to lead successful and productive lives. The 23 unnamed universities where men typically earn less 10 years after graduating are an object lesson in how to spend ruinous amounts of public money to divert young people with potential into a life of misery, poverty and benefit dependency.
Aditya Chakrabortty is absolutely right that the expansion of higher education has been a very poor deal for many young people. Most middle-class 18-year-olds going to Russell Group universities and/or studying on vocational courses such as medicine are likely to do very well. But most other young people who have the option of university face a miserable choice: they either do a degree and probably end up with a non-graduate job and substantial debt, or they don’t and possibly end up with an even worse-paying job. The solution is to greatly reduce the number of university places. Graduates would then be able to get graduate jobs, and non-graduates wouldn’t have to compete with lots of graduates for other jobs.
If anything, Aditya Chakrabortty underplayed the extent that students are being ripped off. They get shockingly little for their £9,000. It can work out at £50 for each hour of teaching they receive, often as one of a crowd in a huge lecture hall. It is illuminating to compare it to further education colleges that can receive as little as £2,500 to fund a student for a year, yet manage to give them longer terms and at least as much teaching contact – without the use of mass lectures. Schools also do a lot more with a lot less.
The story in the Times Higher Education that managers at the University of Edinburgh will monitor any staff member who is away from their workplace for half a day or longer may be taken as the end of the much-touted myth that there is a reputable higher education sector in Britain. That any university should decide that trust is not a virtue is shameful: we knew that the research assessment exercise and the research excellence framework were instruments by which the government rewarded lies, so this policy may be a necessary consequence of the bullying and slavery successive governments have imposed, and vice-chancellors endorsed. But anyone who now goes to the UK to be “educated” is a fool: no matter how greedy the university they choose is now required to be, or what promised career benefits are in the glossy brochures.