Students encamped outside of King's College, Cambridge. Picture Credit: Neal/Getty Images

The students are revolting

Far too many young people are sheltered from the real world by their university education

Artillery Row

Over recent weeks, British University vice-chancellors have no doubt been monitoring the situation in the US with concern, wondering when the increasingly volatile student protests would spread across the Atlantic and into British campuses.

Well, they’re here now, and the ‘occupation’ of Oxford and Cambridge Universities by keffiyar-clad undergraduates is a truly unedifying spectacle. I’m sure many of the students involved feel strongly about the war in the Middle East and are — like the rest of us — appalled by the human suffering in the region. But given the many other conflicts, atrocities and inequalities taking place across the world, it would appear that motivation for these protests is not so much trying to bring about a ceasefire, but more a performative demonstration of the anti-Israel — and anti-Jewish — sentiment that is being displayed by students in the US. 

Perhaps unwisely, I tweeted my thoughts on this matter, saying:

The Blairite aspiration to send half of all young people to university has backfired spectacularly. Spending three years detached from the real world spending someone else’s money is not always the best start to adult life. Academic learning & common sense are not the same thing.

It seems I have inadvertently kicked a hornet’s nest; this post has amassed nearly 2m views, provoking an extraordinary amount of outrage and vitriolic abuse. Reading through some of the ‘comments’, it is clear that there is a lack of critical thinking — amongst Twitter users at least — about the merits or otherwise of our higher education ecosystem.

Firstly, there are widespread misconceptions about who pays for university education. In nearly all cases, at the point of delivery, tuition and accommodation costs are met not by the student themselves but by the taxpayer through the medium of student loans, and by parents and grandparents. Even those students who admirably take on part-time jobs do not earn anywhere near enough to cover their costs. So most undergraduates, during the course of their study, are living on other peoples’ money. This is not necessarily a bad thing; there are numerous good reasons why individuals may be ‘dependents’ at different points during their lives. But for many young people, being completely financially dependent until the age of 22 may not be the most effective induction into the responsibilities and rewards of adulthood.

Oxbridge colleges offer a particularly sheltered existence

Of course, after gaining a degree, graduates do begin to pay off their student loans. But around 70% of students never repay their debt, and the current total student loan debt to the taxpayer stands at an eye watering £200 billion. This means that the fifty per cent of British young people who don’t and will never benefit from higher education are paying through taxation for the other (often more ‘privileged’) fifty per cent to go to university. And the taxes of the apprentice bricklayer and doctor’s receptionist are funding not only the tuition fees of those at university; they are also paying for student accommodation, food and drink and, currently, a spending spree on tents at Decathlon so that the academic crème de la crème can camp out on Oxbridge lawns and signal their virtue to the world. It is hard to dress up this transfer of cash from ordinary workers to middle class students as a victory for equality.

University life is not just detached from the real world in a financial sense. It also doesn’t require students to develop many of the skills and virtues that will be required later in life. That is not to belittle the university experience; undergraduate study can be extremely intense, and many students work longer hours and face far greater pressure than most employees. But there are scant opportunities to learn how to work with people of all ages and worldviews and to discover the consequences of not turning up to work. Oxbridge colleges offer a particularly sheltered existence — when I was at Christ’s College, our rooms were cleaned, our bins emptied and all our meals cooked. Students at the next-door Emmanuel College even had all their laundry done by college staff.

Again, it may be necessary for some young people to have this immersive university experience in order to concentrate on their studies. But my point is that campus is not the real world. And while it may enable students to make the most of an academic education, it doesn’t always lend itself to the development of common sense or wisdom. It is one thing for a small proportion of a nation’s youth to be removed from reality at the dawn of their adult lives; it’s a different thing entirely for this to be the foundational experience of half of our population.

Many will of course have reasoned disagreement with this analysis. But the raw anger and emotional nature of the response to my Twitter post suggest I touched a nerve. Much of the abuse seems to stem from a belief that I have no right to speak on this issue because I am a supposedly ‘posh Tory’ who benefitted from a Cambridge University education. I am accused of wanting to deny young people the opportunity I myself was lucky enough to have. To be clear, I went to a Sheffield comprehensive school, won a place at Cambridge on merit and took out a student loan which I would probably never have earned enough to repay in full had I not become an MP. So yes, I spent three years at university detached from the real world, spending other people’s money.

As is so often the case, many on the Left are so dazzled by identity politics that they seem unable to see clearly enough to critique the issue at hand. What, and who, do they believe higher education is for? Why should it be an unarguable good — and a sign of progress — to send half of all young people to university?

The purpose of higher education should surely be to equip people for the skills and knowledge they need to make a success of their own lives and a meaningful contribution to society as a whole. It goes without saying that we will always need doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, researchers and others to receive a university education. But there is no evidence that such a massive expansion of higher education has improved our society or economy.

And for the individual, it is increasingly clear that many young people who go to university do not themselves receive much — if any — net benefit. Young men who attend lower-rated universities earn less than their non-graduate counterparts. Only 38% of students think their course represents value for money. Graduates are left saddled with an average of £45 000 of debt, and, according to employers, without the most basic skills needed for work. The glossy prospectus version of the university experience might look enticing, but it also leaves increasing numbers lonely and depressed. Social mobility is at its lowest point since the 1970s. And it’s unclear what return the British tax-payer makes on a considerable investment, given there is no positive correlation between the proportion of graduates and a country’s GDP. Neither has higher education expansion increased social mobility, which is at its lowest since the 1970s.

Many commentators are unaware — or in denial — of the human and economic costs of a bloated university sector. Perhaps this is because, for some on the liberal left, the purpose of higher education is not really about gaining knowledge or improving productivity. Rather it is all about status.

We need a much more critical debate about the merits or otherwise of our oversized higher education sector

Why does a university education confer so much status in 21st century Britain? In our post-industrial society, as author David Goodheart observes in Head, Hand, Heart, cognitive knowledge is now valued far above practical skills and life experience. Gaining a degree – however dubious the title, limited the value, or inflated the grade – marks someone out as a member of the cognitive elite. For many young people, gaining a degree offers no economic or emotional benefit; yet many on the liberal left can’t tolerate any reduction in the number of undergraduates because this presents a direct threat to their understanding of status accumulation.

We need a much more critical debate about the merits or otherwise of our oversized higher education sector. Those on the left who are more circumspect about the current state of affairs blame the marketisation of universities and the shift to a client/supplier relationship rather than a student/teacher model. I have a great deal of sympathy with this view, but the more immediate problem is that the market is broken. In a functional market system, those who benefit from a particular product or service are those who pay for it. This keeps prices low and quality high because customers will not otherwise purchase the product. This is not how it works in higher education in Britain.

The main beneficiaries of university education are employers, who hire graduates, and property developers (often foreign investors), who receive enormous sums in rent from students who must pay to live away from home. But it’s the taxpayer — and sometimes eventually the graduates — who pay for the privilege. We have a system where hard-up young people act as the facilitators of a giant transfer of wealth from the taxpayer to wealthy employers and property owners. It is hard to understand why left wingers are uncritical of this arrangement.

A logical reform would be to ensure that the party who derives the most benefit from a particular higher education course is the party that foots the bill. If employers — including the NHS — had to reimburse the state to compensate the taxpayer for the education their employee has received, we would soon find out which jobs really do need degrees and which skills would be better gained in the workplace.

Alternatively, we could split state funding for higher education equally between all 18-21 year olds, giving every young adult a budget to contribute towards education and training through quality courses with accredited employers and institutions. This would put an end to the current inequality of support between those who do and don’t go to university. There will be many other ideas for reform, but first we must agree that reform is desperately needed. 

Our top universities (and I don’t just mean Oxbridge) are the envy of the world, and form a vital part of our history, culture and economy. Those young people with the academic aptitude to benefit from a university education should go to university, regardless of background. But it is a mistake to think that more graduates automatically means a happier, wealthier or more enlightened society. If we really want progress, we should do more to restore social status to those whose skills lie in practical, technical and manual work and in serving and caring roles. That really would make for a more equal society.

Who knows how long the Oxbridge protests will continue. But if these students — blessed with the best brains of their generation — really want to bring about world peace, perhaps their time would be better spent cracking on with their studies and training to be lawyers, doctors, diplomats, teachers and wealth generators who can really make a difference.

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