Universities are in crisis: We need to restore the value of higher education

Universities are in crisis: We need to restore the value of higher education

For the first time in a long and illustrious history of expansion and achievement, UK universities, who this August were struck by their most strenuous student recruitment season in recent memory, seem to be losing their appeal for young people far and near. This year has seen a fall in the number of applications by 5%, including a 7% decrease in those from EU students. With a backdrop of rising fees and doubling interest rates for loans, as well as the Brexit cliff-edge, the seductive glamour of our famed institutions appears to have diminished.

Figures from UCAS highlighting this sharp fall are hardly surprising. EU students are understandably deterred by the uncertainty Brexit casts over their right to live and study in the UK, made all the more precarious by Amber Rudd’s calls for ‘tougher controls’ on the number of international students in Britain.

Meanwhile, much like the drop in domestic applications which followed the tripling of fees in 2012, the current rise in fees to £9,250, coupled with skyrocketing interest rates of 6.1%, has discouraged British applicants countrywide. Any increase in financial commitment forces students to rightly question whether university really is good value for money. Can it really deliver crucial skills that they can’t get elsewhere more quickly and cheaply, or are all these fees worth it for the ‘signal’ of competence a degree gives to employers in an interview?

The reality, displayed by a recent damning report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, is that students will graduate with average debts of £50,800. Though Universities Minister Jo Johnson boasts of record numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending university, due to the scrapping of grants and access to larger loans, they are faced with the prospect of graduating with debts of over £57,000. Moreover, despite the fact that loans are only repaid after a graduate exceeds a £21,000pa salary, the IFS have found that the lowest-earning graduates are now paying 30% more than in 2012. It is not difficult to see then why a young person contemplating whether or not to apply for tertiary education in 2017, all the while painfully aware of the housing crisis and a difficult job market, may opt for alternatives.

The fall in applicants is also unsurprising in view of findings that more than a third of graduates regret ever going to university. 49% believe they could have earned their current job without their costly degree and the number of graduates who say university was ‘very poor value’ has doubled since 2012. Graduate regret now manifests itself on the applicant’s side. While half the population attends university, only 20% of careers strictly require a degree. Many then have perhaps begun to realise that higher education, though romanticised in the Blair years as the conduit to social mobility and economic growth, is not the most prudent path to take into the world of work.

Yet the UK is uniquely obsessed with universities. With our drastic dismantling of polytechnics in the nineties, our ceaseless expansion of current institutions and the building of new ones in a rate unlike any other similar country, we have shown a basic disregard for whether university actually gives a graduate the skills they need for a job. The university has an unshakeable monopoly on tertiary education, which has been seen to have negative consequences for our national productivity, economy and social mobility. The 30 polytechnics created in the UK in the 1960s established close links to labour markets and offered vocational alternatives to traditional academic teaching, gearing students aerodynamically towards careers. However, in 1992, after the economic instability of the 70s and 80s, the government was convinced that students, now viewed as consumers, would only pay fees for ‘proper universities’, and thus to ensure feasible budgets, ‘polys’ must become ‘unis’. So they did, and the vocational melted into the academic.

Meanwhile, Germany’s equivalent to our eliminated technical colleges - Fachhochschulen - are crucial to the state’s unparalleled success in engineering. Both USA and Canada have longstanding alternative colleges focusing on vocational diplomas. The Netherlands has not established a single new university since 1976, during which time Britain has managed to create 89 institutions, not one of which is alternative to the conventional.

Academic education was never designed as a wholesale conveyer-belt path to national prosperity, yet for decades it has naively been treated as such. The government’s recent proposal, the Teaching Excellence Framework, designed to grade universities as bronze, silver or gold based on teaching and change funding accordingly, will, as Jo Johnson himself admits, pave the way for even more universities to be created. Our consuming, backward fixation on conventional academic teaching has lead us into a skills shortage in technical occupations, unsustainable economics and now a loss of confidence in tertiary education made all the more grave by fees.

During Tony Blair’s premiership it was believed that 50% of the cohort attending university would generate more wealth for all. Now we have evidence that many degrees don’t pay, 77% of students won’t repay their student loans, and the taxpayer has to pick up those which remain unpaid without the return of a boost to the economy given by skilled productive graduates. Additionally, the economy will suffer from such a large proportion of graduate income being used to repay loans.

This was all meant to be solved. Increasing fees was justified on the basis that the quality of teaching would improve, yet most students have no idea what their fees are being spent on, and teaching hours are in decline. As NUS vice-president Sorana Vieru stated: “The £9,000 fees system is a failed experiment that has not driven up quality’. In a faculty-wide poll taken at UCL, a huge 86% of respondent staff disagreed that our teaching facilities are adequate for the number of students taken.

To bring in more income, enrolment numbers at UCL have doubled in little more than a decade to 38,000 much to the faculty’s protest, and there are plans to expand further, which puts teaching quality under great strain. It also emboldens the hierarchy of universities in England, further depriving those lower in the league table of students, and putting yet more students in conventional academic education when what Britain needs is more vocational skill-based training. Practicality is sidelined by business interests. No wonder universities have moved frantically to fill places this summer, when if a recruitment target is missed by 100 students it means £1m less revenue over the next three years. A surplus of students, no matter what effect this has on teaching or the faculty, is demanded to cover costs.

If a university is run like a business, it is obvious that improving teaching will be just one of a host of concerns discussed by boards and chancellors. Recent reports by the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggest that two thirds of universities now have more administrators than they do faculty staff, which is both hugely expensive and inefficient; it enlarges costs and undervalues scholarship and tuition. The tasks usually left up to professors are now taken up by business-minded ‘supporting staff’ performing fanciful initiatives for huge salaries. UCL students are currently paying for a staggering 453 staff on +100k salaries, with 150 of these on salaries higher than Theresa May’s. Meanwhile, many other Russell Group universities enforce a ‘Sports Direct Model’ of zero-hours contract pay for lecturers and faculty members; at the University of Birmingham, 70% of staff teach on completely insecure contracts, some earning less than £6,000 a year.

Trimming the fat at an administrative level would surely let universities get back to their core aim of teaching excellence, which might go some way towards restoring student confidence in the value of their degrees. Morale is at an all-time low across many faculties, academic excellence must not be usurped by a for-profit mindset. Furthermore, the universities’ dominance of tertiary education should be reworked, and a greater connection established between these institutions and the broader economy and world, not just between consumers and business leaders. We need to revive the belief that higher education is not just a dispenser of crippling debt but a powerful tool, both practical and enriching.

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