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Artillery Row

Must we keep failing universities alive?

History is full of institutions which could not justify their own existence

Like so many fossilised Oxbridge academics, Britain’s supposedly “world-leading” higher education sector has dined out for decades on past glories. Yet as news broke earlier this week that many universities are planning to reduce their intake of British applicants in favour of more lucrative international students, it is becoming increasingly clear that the sector is no longer fit for purpose.

For one, the graduate wage premium has all but disappeared. About 4 in 10 graduates work in a job which doesn’t require a degree, while UK graduates now make about 27 per cent less than their American counterparts. When bearing in mind the delay to career progression and the burden of student debt, it’s difficult not to conclude that many graduates would have been better off if they hadn’t attended university at all. 

For this — as with so many things — we can partly thank Tony Blair, and his disastrous 1999 pledge to put half of school leavers through university. At the time, we were promised that a better educated populace would bring about an intellectual renaissance, helping to make us more innovative and more productive. In fact, widening participation has cheapened the value of a degree, leaving many students with a qualification worth little more than the glossy paper that it’s printed on. The kind of targeted apprenticeship schemes found elsewhere in northern Europe are nowhere to be seen.

Meanwhile the funding mechanism introduced by David Cameron’s Coalition Government maintains a remarkable balancing act, spectacularly managing to satisfy absolutely nobody. For graduates, student loan repayments are a costly graduate tax, levied at 9 per cent on income earned above the repayment threshold. Just 27 per cent of full-time undergraduates starting in the 2022/23 academic year are expected to pay off their loans in full. 

For the Government, the remaining 73 per cent of students represent a financial time bomb — their shortfall will eventually find its way onto Government balance sheets, adding to our already soaring debt. Yet even with this guarantee of Government funding, UK universities still make a loss of about £2,500 for each domestic student that they take.

For higher education providers, the answer to that conundrum is simple — more foreign students, and more foreign cash. University bureaucrats have displayed remarkable creativity in finding new and innovative ways to onshore international students, whether by reducing grade requirements for foreign undergraduates, offering pay-to-play masters’ degrees, or opening up new campuses in London for immigrants who see student life as little more than a stepping-stone towards permanent settlement in Britain. 

What interest does a British government have in propping up universities if they’re not even educating British students?

Of course, reliance on overseas students comes with its own pitfalls. Dependence on foreign students means kowtowing to foreign grievances, as UCL’s Prof. Michelle Shipworth discovered recently, when she was banned from teaching a “provocative” course on China in order to protect the university’s commercial interests. While Chinese students continue to pay the bills, criticism of the Chinese state is firmly off the table.  That’s before we even mention the thousands of students who take up study at UK universities with no intention of completing their degrees. 

Unease over increasing reliance on foreign students also speaks to a far deeper tension at the heart of the debate — what interest does a British government have in propping up universities if they’re not even educating British students?

Our failed experiment in mass higher education is just that — a failure. Graduates no longer benefit from a salary premium, but still end up saddled with debt which eats into their already-squeezed pay packets. Our universities are struggling to keep the lights on, and the productivity boost that we were promised when we embarked on this campaign of mass university attendance has failed to materialise. If anything, our workforce is less well-suited for modern working life than before. To quote Tom Sharpe’s bitingly funny Porterhouse Blue — if a little learning is a dangerous thing, just think what harm a lot of it can do. 

Once again, the British state has tried to please everybody, and ended up satisfying nobody. It just isn’t possible to have mass higher education at low cost while also ensuring rising graduate salaries and financially solvent universities.

Rescuing British higher education from itself will require a reformist zeal that could make William Forster blush. Let the ex-polys go bust, or else give them new life as technical colleges, charged with delivering a raft of high-quality apprenticeships through private-public partnership. Reform the broken funding mechanism, drawing on the experience of countries like Australia, which report both higher repayment rates and greater student satisfaction. And for goodness’ sake, close the loopholes that allow our universities to behave as visa mills, further driving up our migration figures.

In the meantime, we could start by recognising our declining higher education sector for what it is. History is full of venerable institutions which fell into obscurity because they failed to move with the times. Why should Britain’s flagging universities be any different?

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