The Destruction of Higher Education 36


In our discussions of the riots, a commenter noted that while I had grown up in comparative material poverty, I had benefited from an environment which was socially and intellectually rich – by contrast with the looters. It was a very good point, and I don’t think I had thought of it that way before. I recall a survey of educational achievement by children which found the most significant of all correlations was to the simple number of books in the parental home.

But nevertheless, my own progress – and that of my siblings – was entirely due to the availability of public funded excellent education. I was not only given higher education free, but given a full maintenance grant I could actually live on. Without that, I would have had little more opportunity than my father, forced to leave school at 13 to work.

To me, it is the greatest betrayal in the modern history of Britain, that my generation, which benefited hugely from free public education, has destroyed it rather than pay for it for the next generation.

A betrayal instigated by one Tony Bliar, public school and Oxford.

Now a survey indicates that with new tuition fees, average graduate debt might soon reach a staggering £53,000. This is in fact already blindingly obvious to those of us who are parents.

The government has effectively withdrawn all public funding from university teaching in England and Wales, the finance for universities solely covering part of research costs. No other major country in the world has done this. It is an act of crass philistinism, from a government of millionaires who never needed public educational provision and whose social circles do not need it now.

It is an act of class war, pure and simple.

That level of existing debt as graduates launch their careers (those who can find one) is also going to contribute to the inevitable major collapse of the housing market. To add to the mountain of lunacy that this policy comprises, it is further evidence of the ludicrous fallacy to which this government is so attached, that it is only public debt which damages the economy.


36 thoughts on “The Destruction of Higher Education

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  • Jerry Jones

    To my mind, Blair’s greatest idiocy regarding HE was the target of 50% to go into it. Assuming that less than 100% of the people with above average ability go then, by definition, universites would have to be capable of managing students of below average ability.

    We should see the most able and motivated 10-20% going to university on a fully funded and maintained basis. This would make university once again something for people from your background to see as hugely desirable and worth striving to achieve, as opposed to an expectation regardless of real effort, with the universities again being genuine centres of excellence.

    When I, thankfully only briefly, used to teach in an FE college it was very obvious that large numbers of my students had no place in a solely academic environment and would have benefited hugely from the discipline imposed by older colleagues in a workplace. They would then have been in a far stronger position to benefit from the more academic learning expected of them at college. I also doubt that employers would be prepared to tolerate the fake qualifications awarded on the basis of plagiarised assignment work that all too often seemed the norm, ironically enough often qualifying the student to go on to university.

  • craig Post author

    Jerry Jones,

    I broadly agree. University is probably not appropriate for 50% of the population. One of the problems of calling everything a “university” is that it has unnecessarily stigmatised anything that isn’t.

  • Jan Wikund

    Congratulations, Britain. You will eventually end up with an African-like level of education and, perhaps, an African-like level of earnings. But I suppose the British upper-class doesn’t mind – it is funnier to be rich the poorer all the others are…

  • kathz

    One of the things I’ve observed in many years of teaching at a university is that it’s not easy to predict suitability for university from A-level grades, at least in Humanities subjects. Students at A-level are often encouraged to memorise a great deal and repeat the teacher’s acceptable arguments rather than thinking for themselves – and independent thought doesn’t attract many marks in the A-level mark scheme. And there are also students whose enthusiasm for scholarship and appreciation of what it involves comes rather late. This makes me favour multiple routes into university (and other forms of higher and further education) rather than the fetishising of the A or A* grade. (I know quite a few people with masters’ degrees and Ph.D.s – including from Oxbridge – who found their way into higher education after an unsuccessful school career.) I’ve also seen students with A grades unable to cope with the kind of thinking demanded at university and shocked that lecturers don’t just tell them what to write and what to think – as well as students who seem to have peaked at A-level but aren’t so capable of university work. So when people say only 10-20% should go to university, it’s hard to know what criteria they would use to select them.

    I’d rather have a system where those who wish to try education at a higher level have that opportunity. I’ve sometimes taught students for whom degree work is very difficult but who display real enthusiasm for the subject and who plainly work and learn – and I’m happy to teach them too.

    An educated population capable of independent thought seems to me a strength in any democracy. Limiting university to the rich and those who will gamble on the debt is dangerous – and so is limiting teaching to training for current jobs (jobs that will often vanish just as students qualify). What universities should do is to combine current knowledge with a questioning, flexible, thoughtful approach so that graduates can develop independently in a changing world. Incidentally, polytechnics used to include teaching in the Humanities with vocational training in other areas – and expected vocational students to receive a broader education than the narrow subject they studied; unfortunately this aspect of polytechnics has been ignored by the people who rant against new universities.

    A further thought seems relevant. There are lots of middle-class people who take it for granted that their children will attend university and occupy professional jobs because this maintains their class status. Apart from the snobbery, this may disadvantage middle-class children (and society as a whole) since their children may be better fitted for manual work and might be happier in such useful jobs. Much of the debate on higher education has worked on the assumption that the children of the poor should be happy in manual work and the children of the rich and moderately-well-off should occupy the professions. This isn’t my experience.

  • Martin Green

    Totally agree Craig. I benfitted from a fully funded (topped-up by dad) higher education at Liverpool Polytechnic studying Sports Science which led me to a fantastic career in Physical Education and Sport. My concern with recent educational policy is, as Jerry Jones states above, the students attending university may not be best suited/served by the courses/qualifications on offer. I have watched over the years many attempts to establish real vocational education in our state school system. Clearly the ‘secondary modern’ system (before my time!) was doomed to fail as it was always seen as the second class strand of the system. Comprehensives improved the opportunities for more children but initiatives such as the TVEI and, lately, the expansion of BTEC and other vocatioanl courses into schools face the same prejudice from parents, teachers, students and universities – there really is nothing like the educational snobbery abroad in this country! We lack a broad, well resourced and integrated post 16 educatonal framework which provides a rich, appropriate and tailored menu of courses, experiences and qualifications to attract the full range of our young people. It is clear the academic pathway is very well catered for, so too the level 2 vocational pathway with many opportuities for students to study vocational courses at the introductory level. The massive shortfall in this country is the lack of real, high quality vocational and apprenticship based qualifications which include the high level engineering / electronics/ manufacturing skills which we will require in the technological revolution inherent in the age of ‘peak oil’ and low carbon futures. There are pockets of good practice in these areas but the inherent educational snobbery in our society, which only values academic degrees, has continued to impede any serious investment or acceptance of high quality vocational education. We must prioritise this area with public (and private) funding perhaps saved from the illegal and immoral adventures our armed forces are continuing to endure (for nought) in Afghanistan and Libya; the scrapping of Trident might help too!

  • Strategist

    “the greatest betrayal in the modern history of Britain, that my generation, which benefited hugely from free public education, has destroyed it rather than pay for it for the next generation”

    Yes, absolutely. Such a simple concept of “paying it forward” – and would have been so easy to do as the economy as a whole is so much bigger and richer than it was in the 60s/70s.

  • John K

    Jerry Jones
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    Spot on.
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    What’s more, Labour and the civil servants didn’t even know what the baseline (current percentage) was when they announced the target!
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    One thing you didn’t mention is degree grade inflation – a 2.2 of 25 years ago is now a 2.1, and a 2.1 a First. There is now no way of telling who is really the most able, as you can get a decent 2.1 without displaying any unusual effort or intellectually engagement.
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    To a substantial proportion of the reasonably intelligent and personally engaging but largely unmotivated undergraduates I taught recently at a “top ten” University, it was pretty much a finishing school, and a way of avoiding for another 3 years having to deal with the real world.
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    The only good thing to come from all the changes is more gender equality: bright girls have displaced less bright boys from the best places and courses.
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    Unusually, this is not (mainly) a party-political thing – politicians of all parties have got changes in HE wrong, from Conservatives renaming Polys as Universities; to Labour introducing fees and setting the 50% target; to Conservatives increasing them with no real analysis of the impact.
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    How did so many people get so much policy-making wrong over 20 years? I wish I knew. It will probably need a historian in 20 years time to analyse all this dispassionately.

  • Lilian El-Doufani

    Also, they claimed that the future of the UK was going to be in the ‘knowledge economy’. i.e. manufacturing was over and ‘knowledge’ services were going to drive the economy in the future. Yet, how do we stand these days? Poorly. They just didn’t and don’t invest in that future.
    eg Parts of India like Kerala are seen THE place to go for the latest computer knowledge and companies recruit here these people because they cannot get the expertise in the UK.
    Many overseas students just don’t want to come over here to get degrees because they see our university infrastructures as decrepit… and we charge a packet. There are far better options.
    But the biggest failure is that we foist on own people. We have university overproduction – but the standard is not high because so many less able people are sent on degree courses. I can recall – it must be at least 5 years ago now – a Materials Science lecturer explaining to me that 30-50% of his students had dropped out before the end of their degree courses because they could not keep up with the maths element of the course. And that that could have been predicted at the outset. It was just that the bar had been lowered to fill the requirement for 50% to go to university. It was completely bonkers. Wasteful for the university and for the students.
    Graduates facing £53K debt then face an uncertain future in short term jobs – if a job appears at all. Hopes of family and home have to go on the back burner for many years. Many go abroad and that doesn’t fuel our economy.
    Where is the plan? I don’t believe there was one. It was all talk and populist moves to win votes in the short-term.
    Other countries have a ‘knowledge economy’. I cannot see the UK having a future as one. Where is the long-term vision?

  • John Goss

    Why can’t everybody have a fully-funded higher education? Both arguments have something favourable for them, that is, the top 10% to 20% going into university fully-funded, like we did (Jerry Jones), but also that everyone capable deserves a higher-education, if they want it (Kathz). The national curriculum has levelled the playing field somewhat, demonstrating that there is not much difference between one student and another provided each gets good tutors who are encouraging. There are always going to be the very bright students whose brains soak up information like Great Barrier Reef sponges. There futures are assured and they will shine in academic achievement. For the rest of us enthusiasm can be enough to achieve personal goals – and that should not be discouraged.
    It might be a contentious statement, but nevertheless true, that the USSR had the highest number of graduates, and higher graduates per capita than any other developed country, before it followed the capitalist model. This education was state-funded. Perhaps even now the Russian Federation is benefiting from its highly-educated workforce, and may, like China, be one of the future economic super-economies. We, who have in recent years followed the American system of paying for everything, (hospitals, dentistry, education, war), are beginning to look back with regret that the mixed economy model we used to have is no longer available. Paying for higher education is what happened in England before the Second World War, and only the elite went to university. I think of poor Jude (the obscure) who had educated himself traipsing up to Christminster thinking he might further his education, and being mocked because of it. We don’t want those days back, do we?
    So how do we solve the problem of paying for education for all. The answer is really quite simple. Our defence expenditure is at least 40% of gross national expenditure. I don’t need to spell it out.

  • Ruth

    Not only will it deprive graduates of the ability to buy a home particularly if they’ve both been to university, it’ll also make it very difficult for them to afford children.

    I’m advising my students to look abroad. Some European universities run degree courses in English including Maastricht whose fees for undergraduates this September are € 1,713. I believe students who take such an opportunity will have a huge advantage in finding a job later on.

  • John K

    Ruth
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    The son of some friends is doing just that – starts his degree at Maastricht this autumn.
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    If I was an employer and I had 2 CVs in front of me, one who’d got a 2.1 at Bogshire and one a similar degree from Maastricht, I know which one I’d favour…

  • ingo

    I agree with your idea of paying forward Strategist, but it should apply retrospectively to all those who are now educated, learned people who should know better, be they policitians, doctors or chappies who inherited wealth and sat on a university chair in Oxford. If all who have been educated in the past, pay a nominal sum each month into a fund that ebnefits their respective university, with a second and third choice allowed should their first choice be over funded, then such arrangement would only be fair, give these people a say and would stop the creeping privatisation and tstae controlled research that is carried out.

    State controlled research usually has to do with helping people to survive or killing them, Its the NHS and MOD research that needs scrutiny today.
    Should we control the sponsors of research a little more?
    Should researcher be the masters of theitr research or those who pay for the schools facillities?
    Should students be allowed to take their research away from such company/patent controls?
    imho, if we would enpower universities with a retrospective payback, then we would enable universities to stand on their own, control their own research and patent it in an open controllable way, for an extra income stream to be fed back into the education establishment.

    Such move would enpower universities, keep the state and company claws at arms lenght and leave education to those who know understand it.

    Can I please book the first people’s /peasant lecture on the subject of’ ‘should we open the NHS regulatory framework to indigenous plant rememdies and bring costs down’

    Thanks Kathz for this excellent idea of letting University lecturers decide who is eligible for university and who is not, getting there, after this silly goal of 50% (fgs Germany has under 25% going to Uni’s) and the immense effort made to get everyone to achieve this goal, has resulted in a pseudo privatised university education.

    I also agree with the introduction of people’s lecture’s during free schedule and lecturing hall times, so totally unconnected scholars can challenge university lecturers and students on their own grounds with theories that are not usually tought or are completely new.
    In the faculties of electromechanics, genetics and bio dynamics, as well as in medicine, this arrangement would make for a healthy extra in any university.

    To Kathz point about “An educated population capable of independent thought seems to me a strength in any democracy.”

    Yes indeed, but they are already indoctrinated at very young level to accept modern genetics, John Innes in conjunction with others decided that if they can’t get these marketorientated aboritions they researched into the consumer chain, after having thouroughly contaminated the organic market in the US, that they initiate a school programm for first schools to adopt, portraying genetic food as the saviour of the world, without parents consenting, just with private sponsorship.
    This insipent move to indoctrinate a certain science and favour it without much balance or reference to conventional breeding can only happen here and its wrong.

    The further the state removes itself from education the less balance and independent thinking, churning out yes sayers who agree not to have control over their own research and data, is not science anymore, its the manipulative construction of something alien to human nature.

  • Tom Welsh

    “The answer is really quite simple. Our defence expenditure is at least 40% of gross national expenditure. I don’t need to spell it out”.

    John, as far as I know UK defence expenditure is 7% of GDP. See, for example, http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/uk_total_spending_pie_chart. Education accounts for 13% of GDP; Welfare 16%; and Interest 7% – the same as Defence.

    You also argue that “…the USSR had the highest number of graduates, and higher graduates per capita than any other developed country…”

    Yet the USSR’s defence spending was much higher, as a proportion of GDP, than the UK’s.

  • Tom Welsh

    The really sad thing about this debate, as far as I’m concerned, is that it all completely misses the point. A first degree – or even a Master’s – no longer guarantees wealth and success, or even above-average earnings. I recall (although I can’t point to the source) some research a few years back showing that, if you excluded a few highly-profitable professions like law, finance, and politics, graduates earned no more than non-graduates. So Blair’s whole thrust was fallacious. Certainly, other things being equal it would be good to give more people a real university education – but for its own sake, to increase their understanding of the world and their enjoyment of it, not to increase their earning power. Unfortunately, other things are not equal.

    Most of the really rich and famous people in Britain today did not even go to university – and most of those who did do not owe their success to their degree studies.

  • JimmyGiro

    In the pursuit of the oxymoron of ‘equality and diversity’, the Marxist-Feminists have destroyed the playing-field in their clumsy efforts of levelling the outcomes.
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    Merit has been replaced by quota, hence the mechanism of measuring merit, such as tough A-levels, has atrophied due to redundancy.
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    The problem with Mr Murray’s complaint is that it has not addressed the type-token ambiguity of the paradox. Yes to free education type, its value inherent in its exclusivity; and no to education as mass token, its tawdry populism undermines its functional academic virtues. A key that opens many locks, is a valuable key; whereas a lock that is opened by many keys, holds nothing much of value.

  • Harry Barnes

    I was part of a generation in which I found there was (a) readily available employment, (b) a Welfare State to look after me if things went wrong, (c) a doctor that would visit me that day if I was too ill to take my turn at his/her surgery, plus easily available hospital treatment, (d) five years of grants when I became on Adult Student, (e) decent openings to study social science subjects, (e) the ability to find work during the vacations, (f) full employment between the ages of 16 and 69 (apart from the full-time study periods) and (g) at least in my early days, little low-level commercialism and and a media which showed some basic standards. There was also, at least in my early days, a wider labour movement that had some idea of the type of direction in which it wished society to move and improve. Nowadays, I am seen as old hat in wanting to restore and then build upon such practices.

  • John Goss

    Tom Welsh. Thanks for that. I should have checked first. But official figures are often misleading and manipulated (as with unemployment figures). The peace tax campaign (Conscience) used to publish the real defence expenditure based on taxation, and my understanding was that it was much higher than the 20% plus then (1980s) published, but I don’t seem to be able to find this information any more. If I recall correctly it took into account things like sub-contracting in the engineering industry. We were also paying for Trident. But I stand corrected – and must learn not to rely too much on memory. That conceded, if we do nothing about it, there will soon be a replacement for Trident, and defence expenditure will be soaring again.

  • John Goss

    Tom Welsh. I agree that the USSR defence expenditure was much higher than that of the UK. But then there was a Cold War going on and it had to keep pace with the US. But I see your argument. It could still have a free higher-education system and maintain its defence expenditure.

  • Stephen Morgan

    The Open University is still there and somewhat cheaper, which is probably a simpler option that having yourself away to the continent. It’s certainly the only way I can afford higher education. It also isn’t too sticky over prior qualifications, useful given my lack of so much as a GCSE in Art. I’m going for a BSc, which have a bit more scarcity value than BA.
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    A BA isn’t worth much now. As someone said above, it’s no longer allows a reliable assessment of talent. Which means that, as one can’t say how much someone knows, it’s more than ever who you know that counts. If not who you know, then who your family knows, who can identify with you because you grew up in the same place, or went to the same school, or have the same accent or interests. Gymkhanas, or whatever the children of the rich are into these days.
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    I don’t think the expansion in university attendances has broadened the class who attend. The middle classes may have come to see it as something they’ll definitely do rather than something they could do, but I still don’t know anyone who’s been to university. They still consider it something beyond the ken of people of their class, and wouldn’t even consider it.
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    “Gender equality” is worse, too. Worse than it’s ever been, in fact, unless one regards an unfair advantage for women to be equality. When women were less likely to be university educated they have much less use for such education for social and economic reasons. Now that women are a rather large majority in universities with an unfair advantage at all levels of education, suddenly pursuing equality is either not important or is a matter of “sexual harrassment” in schools and other feminist rubbish.

  • Tom Welsh

    “A BA isn’t worth much now. As someone said above, it’s no longer allows a reliable assessment of talent”.

    Maybe it never did – but the real point is that there are only so many good jobs in the economy. (Unless you create your own, which requires not only talent but exceptional drive and optimism).

  • Julian

    The tuition fees policy was recommended by Lord Browne (“Labour’s favourite peer”). The terms of reference for his review, set up by the Labour government, said he had to find a way for students to pay for their own education, rather than putting the burden on the taxpayer. You can read it here http://www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/corporate/docs/s/10-1208-securing-sustainable-higher-education-browne-report.pdf

    I agree it’s the wrong policy but to call it “an act of class war, pure and simple” doesn’t put the blame where it really lies. It was more important for Labour that a high percentage of young people went to University, whether or not they benefited or studied subjects worth studying.

  • writeon

    The state has realised, that for the type of society we are moving into, there are simply far too many well-educated people, and one way or another the numbers have to be reduced.

  • Canspeccy

    Tom Walsh is correct. Retrospective statistics show that a university education has a minimal impact on lifetime earnings. In the future, a university education may well diminish lifetime earnings. So what possible reason can there be for the state to subsidize university students to the tune of 53,000 pounds each?
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    The only real beneficiaries of such wasteful spending would be the tens of thousands of second, third and fourth rate academics, whose primary function, at least in the arts and social sciences, appears to be the indoctrination of youth in all of the lib-left bollocks that dominate Britain’s political process.

  • Canspeccy

    To be more explicit, if as we know to be the case, higher education yields no increase in lifetime income, it yields no return to the state in the form of taxes. Thus a grant to the 50% of the population that go to university must be paid in part, i.e., 50%, through taxation of those who do not go to university. This is clearly inequitable.
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    If a government is determined to buy votes by giving grants to cover higher education costs, it should make the same payment to all school leavers. Some will fritter the money away during several years of idleness and frivolity — whether at university or not; some will take the opportunity it provides to study at university and learn something more or less interesting, if not useful; others may invest the money in a business or in some other way that makes them rich. From the latter, at least, there will be a return to the treasury in increased tax revenue.

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