Recently, the Higher Education Policy Institute found that only a quarter of students in the UK thought they got good value for money from university in the pandemic.
Considering the disruption of the past year, this statistic is hardly surprising. Many students have gone months without face-to-face teaching. But like with many societal trends, the pandemic has only accelerated what was already the case: students are losing trust in the value of a university education.
The promise of university is that it will guide young people towards a more prosperous future. That they’ll be given the tools and knowledge to achieve their potential, even to become the next Stephen Hawking or Milton Friedman.
However, institutions that once encouraged intellectual curiosity have become restricted by dogmatic ideological thinking. On many campuses, common sense and freedom of thought have become a dangerous game, where many young people feel forced to believe in one set of values or risk the wrath of cancel culture.
It’s no wonder then that 44 per cent of students are concerned about expressing their opinions, according to a survey published by ADF International.
But what has happened to so many of our world-renowned universities?
The funding model may have a lot to answer for. A typical undergraduate degree in the UK which lasts three years now costs £27,000, excluding maintenance loans. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimates that 83 per cent of all graduates will never pay off all their student loans, and the government itself predicts it will now have to pay for 54 per cent of student loans.
The oversupply of degrees has, in many ways, diminished their value. Long gone are the days when a degree could guarantee a good job. Nearly half of recent graduates are working in non-graduate roles.
If acquiring a professional job is the goal of a degree, these students have effectively wasted thousands of pounds to end up in a job they could have got without a degree. We have more qualified graduates than ever before, yet many degrees aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.
Beyond oversupply, why are degrees losing their value? It may well be the case that too many people are attending university without the intellectual capacity to succeed in an academic course, or perhaps their career choice shouldn’t even require a degree.
Of course, university can be hugely beneficial; however, many universities are getting away with providing low-quality degrees that are of little benefit to students and their future career progression. It can feel as if universities put far more effort into getting bums on seats through marketing campaigns than improving academic standards.
Now bring in government-backed student loans and the intense social pressure to go university and you have the recipe for a £136 billion disaster – the total outstanding debt of student loans in the UK.
One reason university fees are so high is that universities can charge the maximum price, set by government. Students are forced to accept the extortionate fees, while knowing that they won’t have to pay back the cost for potentially years to come.
It may be that if government-backed loans were taken out of the equation and students were responsible for funding themselves, fewer people would make the choice to go to university. But at the same time, universities would be incentivised to reduce their fees or face closure. They would thus be under significant pressure to improve standards to ensure numbers.
This could mean that courses like horology (the study of clocks) and stand-up comedy would be cast aside. Left to the market, universities would be forced to be efficient and sell their courses at a price that students are willing to pay.
If we were to scarp government-backed student loans, critics might argue that universities will become awfully expensive for the average person. However, universities will need to continue to attract students, which could mean a radically lower price or a payment plan.
As students are taking the responsibility to pay for their course, they would demand a higher quality education.
Under the current system, the graduate market has passed its boiling point, and the value of some degrees has burned into smoke. It is time for a system that ensures degrees are worth it, students are getting their money’s worth, and universities are continuously producing better content.
Yes, graduates still earn more money than non-graduates, but employers are starting to care less about hiring graduates. You need to do more than have a degree to be a high earner; degrees no longer prove that you can do a job any better than the next candidate. Government intervention has continually degraded our universities. Let us put an end to this failed union. Let us bring value back to our universities.