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An excellent and timely post from Fraser Nelson on the Spectator’s Coffee House blog. His subject is the pressure on young people to get into university at any cost: 

  • "…in the 22 years since I left school, the government has added to the pressure. It has made a switch from providing university education to actually selling it. It is saying: yes, you’ll have to take out a government loan. But don’t complain! It’ll be worth it. You will be on average £100,000 better off over a lifetime."  

But does this £100,000 benefit stand up to scrutiny? Nelson doesn’t dispute it as such, but rather points out the complexities behind the headline figure: 

  • "It hides an almost comic range, which goes from £400k for doctors, dentists etc to negative – yes, negative – £15k for men who graduate with degrees in creative design.  
  • "… a guy who read History and Philosophy can expect a negligible ‘graduate premium’ of £1,500 over an entire career – i.e., a few quid a week. So for the kind of work that such graduates end up doing, economically speaking, they’re no better off that their colleague who never went to uni."  

In keeping with tradition, one must, at this point, offer up the usual pieties about education being about more than work and money. To be sure, learning for learning’s sake is most certainly a very wonderful and civilised thing. Indeed, it would be lovely if we could all draw deeply from the well of academic knowledge. Unfortunately, though, admittance is charged –at around £27,000 a pop. So, given what students are putting in, it’s not unreasonable for them to ask what they’ll be getting back.

In this regard, it’s high time that academic institutions provided information with something like the honesty and transparency legally required of financial institutions: 

  • "…at a time when the government is asking teenagers to sign up for £40k in debt, it needs to level with them about the likely returns on that investment.  
  • "To [David] Willett’s credit, he’s doing just that. Soon he’ll force unis to release graduate employment figures for each course, so students can see if they’re being conned."  

This is a welcome reform, but it should go further.

At the moment, the system of loans for tuition fees places all of the risk on (a) the students and (b) the public purse. There’s no risk at all for the university, which gets its tuition fee upfront, with no downside if it doesn’t lead to a positive outcome for the future earning power of the student in question. This must change. If universities offer the wrong courses to the wrong students then they too should suffer the consequences.

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