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Tom Burkard undertakes Education research for the Centre for Policy Studies and is a member of the NAS/UWT and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Buckingham. He is currently working to start a free special school staffed exclusively by teachers with experience in the armed forces.

The new Higher Education White Paper is not without merit—no doubt it cost David Willetts a few bruised shins to convince his mandarins that good universities should be allowed to expand.  Likewise, one suspects that the proposal to allow private universities to compete on an equal footing was stoutly resisted by the statist mentality that prevails in Whitehall. 

Alas, all these benefits cannot possibly compensate for the Philistine message conveyed by the proposal to name and shame the 'dead-end courses' that don't lead to good jobs.  No doubt many of the offerings Willetts has in mind are pretty dreadful, but his announcement betrays some very fundamental—and destructive—misconceptions about higher education that have taken hold in the political nation.

A generation or two ago, it was assumed that learning was a good thing for its own sake.  There was a general understanding that the health of any civilisation depended upon the wisdom of its leaders, and that universities existed to preserve and nurture the cultural and intellectual life of the nation.  The excellence of our universities was assumed: academic freedom was taken for granted, and government regulation was unthinkable. 

Now, parents and students view higher education as a credentialing system—a passport to a professional salary. Vice-chancellors tell us that we need a highly-trained workforce to meet the challenges of the 21st century economy. Politicians from all parties view it as an instrument for social engineering.

Yet every one of these views is fatally flawed. 

First—a credential that everyone has quickly loses its value.  Now that we have 83 graduates chasing every graduate job, parents and school leavers are starting to question the value of a degree.  In investment terms, it's a big gamble, and the odds are stacked against you.  Here's why:

  • One out of every four students drops out before getting a degree—but not before spending a lot of time and money.  Time that might be better spent getting work experience and pay slips.
  • One out of every three graduates is either unemployed or working in a job that doesn't require a degree.  Looking at uni as a business proposition, these are the unlucky ones: they've wasted even more time and money.
  • Not all graduate jobs are well paid.  In Does Education Matter? Prof Alison Wolf points out that male arts grads actually make less than men who leave education at A-level.  The lifetime-earnings differentials that are routinely trotted out to sell degrees are based on historic evidence from a time when a relatively small percentage of the workforce held  degrees.  Even then, once you strip out doctors and lawyers, the differential dwindles.  Nor do these figures include the 11% who are self-employed—people who have higher-than-average earnings, and lower-than-average educational credentials.

If vice-chancellors were held to the same standards as insurance salesmen, a lot of them would be in prison.  Not only do they mislead students about the economic value of their degrees, but they mislead politicians about 'the challenges of the 21st century economy'. 

Which brings us to the second myth—that our prosperity depends upon the efficiency of our educational arrangements.  Were this so, the old Soviet Union would never have collapsed, and the United States would be a banana republic.  The true innovators—people whose brains change the world—go wherever they can best exploit their talents.  America owes its overwhelming financial might to low taxes and minimal regulation, and not its schools and universities.  Insofar as the latter count, it is mostly because of their superb research facilities, and the ability of the top American universities to attract R&D work—and the brightest foreign students. 

Very few university courses (other than medicine or law) teach students anything that will be of the slightest use in the world of work.  Only a tiny minority science graduates find jobs in R&D.  The vast majority of courses have no utilitarian value unless you go on to teach the same subject yourself.  From an employer's perspective, a good degree from a good university is useful as a marker of superior ability—and they know they're getting an employee who has already learned to network with people who count.  Otherwise, they don't much care whether your degree is in History or Linguistics.

Thirdly, Willetts' insistence that higher education must be used as a tool for promoting social mobility would be a lot more convincing if he hadn't stepped on grammar schools so firmly when he was shadow Education Secretary.  It's pure moonshine to think that we will ever create a truly equal society where we work as a dustman one day and a prime minister the next.  The most we can do is create conditions where the best can flourish, no matter where they grow up.  We had that once; after the war, there was a cross-party consensus on the issue.  It wasn't perfect, but it worked.  It may sound horribly crass to say as much, but we were a much happier nation when all work was considered honourable, and a good carpenter was more highly respected than a useless teacher. 

All is not lost—at least not yet.  Most universities, at least our better ones, have not completely lost sight of the true purpose of education.  Most dons still stubbornly believe that their knowledge is worth having for its own sake, rather than for any crude instrumentalist purposes.  Few of them are so stupid as to buy into the “21st Century Skills” myth that education can teach all-purpose “problem-solving skills”; rather, they understand the rather obvious truth that learning about the constitutional upheavals of 17th century England will not be of the slightest use when you are trying to figure out why your broadband is playing up.  Nor, after grading essays, are they likely to believe that undergraduate courses teach students how to communicate effectively.  Our best academics can, however, teach you whatever you'd like to know about the brightest and best minds that humanity has ever produced in its ascent from a Hobbesian state of nature.

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