Are university degrees worthless?

The real issue is not whether too many or too few people go to university - it is how and what they are taught when they get there.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

We hear a lot about how much it costs a student to get a university degree in the UK these days. But as this year’s A-level results come through, the scramble to sign up students suggests that many places at British universities may now be worthless.

Last year, 10,000 university places went unfilled. Yet the government is funding a further 6000 places this year, as the next stage of New Labour’s plan to get 50 percent of young people into higher education. As a result, supply considerably outstrips demand, and some of the degrees on offer are not worth the paper that they won’t be printed on.

Not so long ago, any place at university was seen as a prize to be fought for. Now thousands of places are left lying around, unwanted by anybody. This unprecedented situation has provoked some bitter exchanges, with the education editor of the UK Guardian taking a swipe at ‘a cacophony of complaints from right-wing educationalists that too many people are being allowed to go to university’ (1).

But the real issue is not whether too many or too few people go to university. It is how and what they are taught when they get there. Our concern should not be whether college courses are full, so much as whether they have enough intellectual content. It is here that the real crisis in higher education can be located.

The idea of widening participation in higher education is a good one. Everybody who has the capacity and the will to take a university degree course should be given the opportunity to do so. The policy of expanding the UK university system, however, begun by the previous Conservative administration and built upon by New Labour, has had very different aims.

Getting young people to sign up for further and higher education has become an end in itself, with aims quite separate from educational considerations. For the Tories, it was largely a way of disguising youth unemployment. For New Labour it is more an exercise in social engineering, creating a contemporary equivalent of National Service.

As part of this politically driven process of expansion, the meaning of university has been almost completely transformed. Previous articles by spiked’s education correspondents have detailed the shift away from the pursuit of knowledge and education for its own sake, towards more vocational, business-oriented courses and the amassing of information. The overall result is that, for most students, today’s university courses compare to those of the past the way that a burger bar compares to a classy restaurant. Little wonder that not everybody finds the fare on offer particularly attractive.

The thinking behind New Labour’s expansion policies was spelled out by prime minister Tony Blair shortly before the recent general election, when he spoke about their mission to create ‘a society that is open and genuinely based on merit and the equal worth of all’. This sounds nicely egalitarian. But in fact the notion of ‘the equal worth of all’ is patronising nonsense. It treats us like children who have to be told that, in the words of Barney the purple dinosaur, ‘everyone is special’. It negates the need for anybody to aspire to improve themselves, and instead tells us all to be happy as we are. That is surely the opposite of a society that is ‘genuinely based on merit’. It is also anathema to the idea of the university as a place where people struggle to fulfil their aspirations.

And higher education seems set to go further down the wrong road. A recent statement from Universities UK (which brings together all the higher education bodies) announced that the ‘key issue for the sector now is attracting people with no background of (or current aspirations to) study in HE to courses and universities’. It appears that widening participation is now to mean getting (press-ganging?) people into universities, whether or not they aspire – or even want – to go. The content of degree courses will no doubt be degraded further, in a patronising attempt to make it more ‘relevant’ to the needs of these reluctant undergraduates.

If expanding higher education is your primary aim, there would seem to be a couple of different ways to go about it. You can lower the standards of entry, and make degree courses less challenging, in an effort to keep less motivated students happy. The empty places and the high dropout rates at many of our universities, however, suggest that is a self-defeating exercise.

Alternatively, you could concentrate your efforts on raising standards in schools, through such measures as better teacher training, in order to qualify more young people for a genuinely higher education. Then you could give them the kind of quality degree courses that might capture their imagination.

However, an education-first policy like that sounds like a dream in today’s climate – and as we know, UK universities are no longer any place for intellectual dreamers.

Read on:

Degrees of bribery, by Josie Appleton

Aiming lower, by Sandy Starr

The classless university, by Jennie Bristow

spiked-issue: Education

With the publication of the Dearing report in 1997, many were already floating the idea that university standards should be lowered to accommodate working-class and disadvantaged students. Read what spiked-writers Jennie Bristow and Brendan O’Neill said about it at the time:

Not so endearing, by Jennie Bristow

Second-class students, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Will Woodward, ‘Attack on “bog-standard” degrees’, Guardian, 17 August 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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