The government has announced significant further changes to university funding. Last year, it significantly worsened the terms of student loans, including increasing the repayment period to 40 years. This week’s changes affect so called ‘low value’ courses and foundation years. ‘Low value’ courses are those defined as courses where relatively few graduates secure highly paid employment within fifteen months of graduation; foundation years are programmes which prepare young people who don’t secure good A-level results for entry to undergraduate courses. Student numbers will be controlled on the former, and fees cut on the latter, making it much less attractive for universities to offer them.
All of these changes have something in common: they are all about the financial return to individuals of going to university. They are all about, to put it very crudely, reducing the cost to the Treasury of providing higher education. In a country which, post-Brexit and post-pandemic, is desperately short of money, perhaps that might seem to make sense. But in fact it is short-sighted and grotesquely unfair.
It is short-sighted because these are narrow and short-term ways of measuring the impact of higher education. They are designed with measures that are out of touch with the way the twenty-first century labour market works. It is simply no longer the case that graduates move seamlessly from their degree into a well-paid graduate job. There are two main reasons for that. The first is the way the modern economy increasingly works. The world of the large-scale corporate graduate training scheme is the world of the twentieth century. Increasingly in the twenty-first century graduate employment is about short-term contracts, start-ups, self-employment. It makes no sense to build policy for the twenty-first century on twentieth-century assumptions. It makes no sense to navigate the route ahead by looking in the rear-view mirror.
And there’s something else. It’s quite true that the strong link between increasing numbers of graduates and rising productivity appears to have been broken, but it’s worth asking how and why it has been broken. It was broken not by the expansion of higher education, which is a global phenomenon, but by the economic crash of 2007-2009. It’s the sluggish recovery from the financial crash, exacerbated by the UK’s slow economic growth since Brexit which is generating a weak graduate labour market. It’s unfair to take opportunities away from eighteen-year-olds because of the failures of bankers and government.
These changes have deeper motives. We’ve known for many years that a major driver of graduate earnings is social class before students get to university. We know that the inequalities of the school system, and the persistent underachievement of the disadvantaged which result from them, drive graduate outcomes. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the government is looking to drive disadvantaged young people away from university by making it less and less attractive for them. This is a Treasury policy designed to save money on the backs of poor young people. That’s unfair because in the long term, we know that graduates earn a premium, and the most influential and well-rewarded jobs in society are held by graduates. The government’s changes might seem technical, but they will drive inequality. And all this from a government which cries crocodile tears about ‘opportunity’ and ‘social mobility’.
It doesn’t need to be like this. Here is a different way of thinking about universities and society: A country’s “ambitions, aspirations and potential are all intimately linked to its higher education sector. Higher education prepares and inspires us to continue to press forward and emboldens us to meet the challenges heading our way. It delivers endless, intangible benefits to the nation, far beyond any individual qualification or job it provides.”
That quotation comes from a government discussion document about the future of universities. The problem is the document is from an Australian policy plan. It was published just four months ago. It was a document designed to launch a national debate about the place of universities in society, the way they should be funded and the way differences between them can be a source of strength. It’s a document which is light years’ away from policies which seem to know the price of everything and the value of nothing, squashing opportunity and closing down possibilities. The government has put on the wrong trousers for its higher education policy. It needs to think again for all our sakes, but mostly for our young people, and most of all for the most disadvantaged.