More town, less gown

The cult of mass university education saddles many students with unecessary debt, breeds dissatisfaction and does little to foster culture or enterprise

This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Universities occupy a privileged place in British society. The degrees they award confer prestige and qualification for the best jobs. As educators to students in their formative years, they have considerable cultural influence. The notion of academic freedom enjoys semi-sacred status, with any curtailment seen as almost unthinkable. The market for their services is massively subsidised by the state, which ends up paying for half the sum it forks out in student “loans”. And we need to cut them down to size.

Sitting in the Oval Office a few weeks after winning the 1972 election, Richard Nixon turned to Henry Kissinger and imparted the following hard-won wisdom: “Professors are the enemy. Write that on the blackboard 100 times and never forget it.” You don’t have to be on the same frequency as the former US president’s paranoia to see his point. Whether you want to improve the lot of young people, make meaningfully conservative policy, improve the quality of academia, or implement the Year Zero necessary to deliver a communist utopia, the universities — as they stand — are the enemy.

It can be difficult to make this case to graduates who have fond memories and remain wedded to the idea of universities as elite spaces which guaranteed their own prosperity. But on each metric by which we can judge them — educating their students; boosting the economy; preserving the flame of Western civilisation; driving intellectual development — universities look increasingly bloated and ineffectual.

Suggest that the expansion of higher education has gone too far, and you will invariably be accused of pulling the ladder up after you. After all, didn’t you go to university? Of course you did. And presumably you would like your children to go to university. The idea that you would then deny places to other people’s children shows that your motivations are hypocritical and self-interested.

This argument is a sort of intellectual cargo cult. University graduates do well in life, so if you slap the label “university” onto a polytechnic and churn students through three years of drinking and dodging lectures, you’ve just found a way to make everyone better off. But universities aren’t a magic black box. The brutal reality of labour markets is that many graduates find that they would have been better off having never gone at all.

Going to university is expensive

Going to university is expensive. That degree might lead to a better job, but it also means three years of lost earnings alongside a huge outlay in fees and living costs. If you spent this time studying economics or law to get a job in the City, this sum works out in your favour. If you decided instead to pursue creative arts, you can look forward to living with your parents for years to come.

A 2020 study by the Department of Education and the Institute of Fiscal Studies found that, over their lifetimes, one in five graduates end up losing money losing money on their degree. In purely financial terms, they would have been better off going straight from school into employment. These graduates are clustered where you would expect to find them; they go to the least selective universities, and study courses like creative arts, language subjects, philosophy, English, psychology, and sociology.

The large financial returns from attending university are made by a small proportion of the total number who graduate. Once you account for the timing of earnings, the top 10 per cent of male graduates do very well indeed and can expect to gain the equivalent of £700,000 over their lifetimes. The median male graduate gets £70,000. Half of the graduate population falls below this figure — a marginal gain spread across 40 to 50 years of employment.

For those who earn most from attending university, the expansion of higher education is likely to have made little difference. They are an intellectual and professional elite that universities catered to before the mass expansion began in 1992 when first-rate polytechnics were converted into third-rate universities.

By contrast, it is the supposed beneficiaries of widened participation (the student with less good A level grades studying subjects with a lower financial return) that end up with little to show for their years of study. When they enter the labour market, they find that they can’t put their expensively acquired qualifications to work, with nearly 50 per cent of recent graduates employed in jobs that don’t require a degree.

And even if the job asks for one, that doesn’t mean it did ten years ago. As made clear in Dismissed by Degrees, a research collaboration between Harvard Business School and Accenture, the expansion in higher education in the United States has been matched by employers demanding degrees for jobs which never previously asked for them.

This degree inflation is a predictable consequence of increasing the supply of graduates. Take a piece of paper, and draw a bell curve on it. On the left-hand side, you have the least academically-able members of the population. On the right-hand side, the most capable. The average person sits in the middle.

Now pick a point on the curve, and draw a line straight through it. This is your cut-off. Everyone on the right goes to university. Most of the disputes over university expansion eventually boil down to what you believe happens to the people on the right-hand side of this line. If you think going to university makes them better at their jobs, they’re shifted further to the right. This is the “human capital” theory of education; studying makes you more productive by increasing your stock of knowledge and skills.

The other theory states that nothing at all happens to them; going to university just tells us that they made it past the cut-off. This is the “signalling” theory of education, which says a degree is just a way of showing employers how smart you are.

Degree inflation is consistent with both these stories. If education works by human capital accumulation, increasing the supply of graduates pushes them into roles lower down the ladder. If it works by signalling, expanding higher education moves the cut-off to the left and decreases the ability of the average graduate and non-graduate: asking for a degree is a way of filtering less-productive people out.

The British government only really wants to subsidise degrees if they work through the first channel. The state currently makes a fiscal loss on nearly half of all the students it funds; arguments for subsidising education rests on the idea that there are useful spill-overs that benefit other people. If all a degree does is help you make money, then you should pay for it.

Many students lose money on their degrees

This argument is strengthened by the observation that in a signalling framework, restricting the number of graduates can improve labour market functioning if it allows employers to distinguish between the average and the exceptional, rather than just filter out the sub-par. The best evidence we have is that degrees are probably some combination of human capital and signalling. This in turn suggests that society as a whole would probably benefit by cutting the subsidy given to universities — and in turn the number of students.

To recap, many students lose money on their degrees. The state loses money subsidising them. The spill-over effects on their education are limited. From an economic standpoint, it would clearly be better if they never went to university at all.

But there’s more to life than money, and university education might be valuable in other ways. If students paid for their own degrees and studied through a sense of vocation in an environment dedicated to the cultivation of the cultural and intellectual life, then we could write this all off as the necessary cost of developing a more fulfilled and rounded class of citizens.

This description of the university would not survive even glancing contact with reality. Massively increasing university attendance means lowering admission standards. Lowering these without failing a huge share of your class every year means lowering academic standards: from 2006 to 2018, the proportion of students at British universities getting first class degrees doubled, while the share getting a 2:2 or lower fell 40 per cent.

It does not seem an unreasonable standard for the intellectual elite of our nation to be capable of reading the instructions on a packet of aspirin. Somehow, 10 per cent of students in England still fell short of this bar, as found by a 2016 OECD study. This is the highly skilled workforce of our future.

Much modern university life is not truly a space for intellectual stimulation and development. It is instead an opportunity for prolonged adolescence, delaying the day when the demands of responsibility are forced onto the student.

While the social markers of adulthood are pushed away, time continues to pass. This delay to starting in life later manifests in taking longer to establish careers, gain financial independence, and, eventually in smaller families.

And remember, the cargo cult university advocates tell these young people all the way through that they are making the smart choice, and that they will reap the financial rewards for it. What happens when they graduate to find that their student loan repayments make their effective marginal tax rate in an average job 42 per cent, or that a pay rise into the upper tier of taxpayers increases that to 52 per cent?

In his Democracy in America, de Tocqueville remarked that education divorced from economic productivity “in a community where everyone is habitually led to make vehement exertions to augment or maintain his fortune” would result in “a very polished, but a very dangerous, race of citizens”. Their status as educated men inducted into the mysteries of the priestly caste would give them “a sense of wants which their education would never teach them to supply”, which they would then seek to meet through political means rather than through productive work.

The problem isn’t exactly one of elite overproduction. If we were genuinely churning out thousands of additional highly intelligent and productive people, we would be hugely better off for it.

We have overproduction of credentials

Instead, we have overproduction of credentials. The intellectually less curious are encouraged to believe that university is nevertheless their ticket to prosperity. They are then left to find for themselves that the returns are marginal at best. This is a recipe for social dissatisfaction.

Returning to the list of degrees by financial return, it should hardly be surprising that in 2019 the campus data company, College Pulse, found that in the U.S. nearly eight in every ten students studying philosophy had a strongly or fairly favourable view of socialism, as did 58 per cent of English, and 57 per cent of sociology majors. By contrast, only eight per cent of students studying for the higher earning degrees in Economics and five per cent in Accountancy felt strongly attracted to the ideology.

This dissatisfaction is exacerbated by the final failure of the university. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott described education as “an initiation into a civilisation”; the process of “beginning to learn our way about a material, emotional, moral and intellectual inheritance”. By this standard, universities are not so much ineffectual as actively malign; they still function to induct people into a culture and way of thinking. It’s just not the culture of their host civilisation.

From “decolonising the curriculum” to critical race theory and intersectionality, the great project of re-examining, re-contextualising, and ultimately dismantling Western intellectual heritage as irredeemably racist, classist, sexist, and fundamentally rotten is university-led. It’s not particularly surprising that attending university drives more liberal attitudes, but it’s also not particularly clear that this is a process conservatives should be delighted to subsidise.

The science fiction trope of fur-clad barbarians living among the ruins of a great civilisation is wellworn, but not entirely inaccurate. Britons are more educated, in formal terms, than almost any other generation in their history, having passed through a system where the level of difficulty falls year by year with the arrival of cohort after cohort of less capable students. This process does not make us more learned.

The other goals of the university as a guardian of a cultural inheritance and maker of the well-rounded individual have been undermined by the conversion of higher education into a system for conferring credentials so that graduates may parse to an employer more easily.

From students sold a lie about a prosperous future to taxpayers racking up losses subsidising their education to academic projects setting themselves in firm opposition to the wider values of society, there are more than enough reasons to put the university sector back in its place. There has to be a better use of resources than burdening our least able students with false hopes and tangible debts, and a better use of the intellectually-curious than confining them to a campus existence with too often limited opportunities to improve the lot of their fellow citizen.

The only beneficiary of the overexpansion of the university sector is the university sector itself, which is quite capable of turning its inhabitants into its advocates. For all the damage done by the overproduction of undergraduate degrees, the problem at postgraduate level is in some ways even more acute.

The number of freshly-minted PhDs rolling off the production line each year vastly exceeds the number of academic jobs available to them, while the number of secure and permanent positions is narrower still.

A contraction in the number of students going to university would turn this problem into an identity crisis for those still dreaming of making it. Is it any wonder then that they defend its continuing growth rather than judging it on observable evidence?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover