What are our universities for? Taxpayers have a right to know
The Augar review has looked into funding. But we need a bigger vision to solve the legacy of failed marketisation
Fri 31 May 2019 01.00 EDT
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The University of Manchester. ‘The question of whether a university is a scholarly retreat, a national investment, or a finishing school for the aspiring rich has never been answered.’ Photograph: Jill Jennings
Eat your heart out, Henry VIII. Britain’s universities have pulled off the greatest institutional coup of our age. They have reversed the dissolution of these contemporary monasteries.
The rescue job on student loans performed by Philip Augar this week is expected to channel another £6bn a year of state funds into universities and colleges. Almost half the nation’s post-18 cohort – principally the richer half – will continue to be removed from the labour force, supposedly to fructify in peaceful retreat for three years. Meanwhile, universities are sitting on £44bn of reserves accumulated since fees tripled in 2012, the other outcome of which is a staggering £100bn of student debt built up over the past decade. No one can say what the nation has gained for all this money.
The crushing of Britain’s skills-oriented college sector over the past decade – down by 16% – has been a scandal
It is true that Augar’s report makes some sensible recommendations. One is that student fees be cut, maintenance loans become grants and, in return, the time period in which debts must continue to be paid off is extended. Given that half of all student loans are written off by the Treasury, this is not unreasonable. On the other hand, an opportunity has, in truth, been missed. Augar should have proposed a switch from a loan to a progressive graduate tax. This would be easy to levy, would not be paid by those on low income, and could not be avoided by those whose wealthy parents currently pay their fees. It is a career-based repayment of a state benefit.
The other change is welcome, a shift of emphasis from higher to further education, towards so-called technical colleges. The crushing of Britain’s skills-oriented college sector over the past decade – down by 16% – has been a scandal. The Office for National Statistics claims that a third of all graduates – including scientists – are not in “graduate level” jobs, while many skills are in acutely short supply. There are a mere 10,000 degree-grade apprenticeships in Britain each year, against 300,000 university places . This is absurd. Somehow the binary structure of post-school education must be restored.
Tuition fees have failed. Their purpose was to create a market in universities, to enable them to compete for students and go free of government control. Universities sold themselves as offering a ticket to life and wealth, and were in a seller’s market. They bumped their fees up to the government cap, and invited one and all to apply, with few questions asked about qualifications. They sold themselves heavily abroad, at two or three times the UK fees cap. Two-thirds of LSE students are from overseas, one-third of those at Oxford and Cambridge, according to the Sunday Times.Almost a quarter of students in British universities are now from China .
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For the universities, the student fee was state money up front. They grabbed it and spent it. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Treasury cost per student is now more than it was before fees were tripled in 2012 . In other words, the entire student fee appears to have gone on inflated university costs. Meanwhile, universities have not been freed of the government, quite the opposite. Academics are run ragged by Whitehall oversight and meddling in their research and teaching. That is what happens when you move from ivory tower to public service.
What universities have not done is budge an inch on their own reform. A university course has barely changed its three-year structure of lectures, essays and exams in a hundred years.
The short-lived universities minister, Jo Johnson, advocated that two-year courses should be adopted. This was not unreasonable – given that most universities teach for barely half a year, with student contact time a fragment of that. But universities hate two-year degrees. To endorse them would imply two is as good as three, or at least make the case for more intensive teaching. Besides, if monasteries needed three breaks for sowing, harvesting and hunting, why not them?
Universities still find it hard to justify their output, beyond pointing at graduates earning slightly more than non-graduates. They have upped their quota of firsts and 2:1s in response to student demand. This was despite employers, such as accountants Ernst & Young , discovering that exam results are completely useless indicators of career performance.
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The question of whether a university is a scholarly retreat, a national investment, or a finishing school for the aspiring rich has never been answered. When, a century ago, universities were tiny establishment kindergartens, it did not matter much. Doctors, lawyers, bankers and architects got by well enough without them. Now that they divide society down the middle, in terms of who goes, taxpayers are entitled to challenge their value. Likewise students, burdened with debt, will ask whether an unmarketable degree is really worth idling away three years of their youth or enduring exam-related stress.
Spending money on higher education is like spending it on defence. You suspect half of it is wasted, but you cannot tell which half. No causal relationship has been proved between graduates – even science ones – and national wealth. A good university is still the nearest a secular society gets to a sacred institution. That is why I prefer traditionalists such as historian Stefan Collini, who see universities as intrinsic goods , devoted to “inculcating the spirit of the humanities”, and infusing society with their occasional wisdom. While perhaps immeasurable, this value should at least be articulated, and Collini does that.
The evidence suggests that most British universities have drifted far from this essentially scholarly ideal to become a generational rite of passage. For most people, graduate and non-graduate, the best education takes place in the university of life, and that costs nothing.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist