Covid, strikes, scarcity of accommodation and now a cost-of-living crisis – over the past few years, life has been particularly tough for students, and it is only getting more difficult for people trying to access higher education. The government’s plans to block access to student loans for applicants who do not achieve at least a grade 4 in English and Maths has been criticised for creating more barriers for those from the most disadvantaged groups in society from continuing their education. And, even if students are lucky enough to get a loan, interest repayments are set to rise to astronomical levels. So, it is somewhat surprising that former politicians are coming out of the woodwork, namely Tony Blair, to call for 70 per cent of school leavers to enter university by 2040. The current figure, having risen to 53 per cent from 14 per cent at the end of the 1970s, is reportedly too low to help improve the UK’s lagging productivity levels.
Supporters of the quota, including former chancellor George Osborne, have cited growing student numbers as a factor in the bolstering of high innovation economies in countries such as South Korea, Japan, and Canada. The report from the Tony Blair Institute argues that such a policy would raise economic growth by nearly five per cent over the next generation, as workers with technical and “soft” skills are needed to help mitigate profound economic challenges in the coming years. And it is not as if young people are reluctant to stay in education, despite the increasing difficulties involved in doing so. Last year, particularly due to the A-Level mitigations put in place during the pandemic, university enrolment hit record numbers, and drop-out rates reached unprecedented lows. The demand is there, and government-backed quotas will have little impact on the already copious amounts of young people who are motivated to get a degree.
The question, therefore, becomes not whether more people need to be pushed into higher education, but whether the system itself needs to be reformed. Some argue that the flooding of the job market with graduates, 70% of which have achieved one of two classifications, has lessened the value of degrees. Although some sectors are impossible to enter without qualifications, in an increasingly competitive world a degree alone is simply not enough to guarantee a viable career. There is a worry that the financial burden of obtaining one is not worth the potential professional benefits it may afford.
Gemma, who works as a digital PR specialist, agrees. ‘My degree made literally no difference between me and my peers or in my career. There are very successful PRs without degrees. All mine got me was a percentage of my wages being taken each month to pay [my student loan] back.’
The financial consequences of a degree, coupled with the possibility that it may not provide individuals with better job prospects in the long run, have contributed to a high level of pressure being placed on students. It is perahps no wonder, then, that universities are notorious for acting as epicentres of the mental health crisis among young people.Bristol is perhaps the most well-known of these institutions - twelve suicides are believed to have occurred between 2016 and 2018 alone. In response, it completely overhauled its policy on mental health support, increasing its investment in counselling and disability services. However, these are the type of reforms that still need to be implemented in campuses across the country. Francesca, a writer, says that her experience at university was what triggered her now lifelong anorexia. She did not receive the vital support that she needed.
‘They asked me to leave and take a year out, but I didn’t. Then nothing. They were shocking! But I also wouldn't have my career without [my degree]. It helped me get my first job definitely, but no one has looked at it since.’
In the debate over these reforms, it is clear that the depiction of universities as worker-producing, productivity machines has contributed to the wider problem of immense pressure being placed on young people, who are statistically harder working yet have worse prospects than their parents’ generation. The debate around getting more people into university seems premature when improving the quality of courses and increasing support for students is what is needed to keep them there.
Particularly for first-generation students, a university degree means more than a piece of paper. It represents an opportunity to invest in themselves and their future, an option that their parents perhaps did not have. So, it is hard to ignore the elitism from those who went to university themselves that seem reluctant for others to receive the same privileges. Most notably, the current Minister of State for Universities, Michelle Donelan, has openly derided the perception of higher education as an avenue for social mobility, even criticising institutions for ‘taking advantage of students’ by recruiting ‘too many’ onto ‘courses that do nothing to improve their life chances’. Her own degree in history and politics from a Russell Group university, however, clearly forged a path towards her current position, perhaps calling into question the motivations of similar “career politicians” who are dismissive of the new proposals.
Similarly, Sonia Sodha, who recently wrote a viral article arguing that a university education has ‘huge downsides for society’, herself comes from a privately-educated background and gained her own Bachelor’s in PPE and a Master’s from Oxford. Other commentators who have benefited from a private and university education such as Peter Hitchens have also railed against Blair’s proposals, with the journalist branding them ‘actively wicked’. It begs the question as to why those who have acutely benefited from the very institutions they are censuring have been allowed to dominate the conversation.
Such a narrative fuels a sentiment of animosity towards a "snowflake generation" with its "Mickey Mouse degrees" - stereotypes that emenate from a fundamental misunderstanding of the current world of work, particualrly among older generations. No matter what degree they leave with, graduates are still more likely to get a job than non-graduates, and additionally earn a median of £9,500 more. The demand for graduates today is in fact so hight that reports have estiamted that the UK has over one million unfilled graduate-level roles. Considering these realities, is it right that the government is enacting policies that are targeted towards actively discouraging young people from obtaining the “wrong” degrees?
In stark contrast to the policies during Blair’s tenure that were designed to encourage as many people to go to university as possible, the government has planned to slash funding for Arts degrees by 50%, potentially leading to course closures and further gatekeeping of the creative sector as a preserve of the rich. While the thinking behind this is to reduce the cost to the taxpayer by limiting the number of students completing degrees that have high drop-out rates and low career prospects, favouring investment in degrees such as Law and STEM while framing the Arts and Humanities as worthless to society is something that could have serious consequences. Not only could the pipeline of talent to these industries be damaged, but the accessibility of education in general. Limiting opportunities for those who may not be suited to highly academic, science-based pursuits but have real talent in other areas could take away their career options and their chance to train in a discipline that they are passionate about. The claim that these reforms are a suitable response to the UK’s alleged productivity crisis is therefore, at the very least, questionable.
That is not to say that there is not a real problem with students feeling that their degrees are not giving them adequate opportunities in the world of work. Concern over the value of degrees is becoming increasingly prevalent due to the pandemic, with graduates in 2021 suffering the highest unemployment rates since the austerity era. In response, universities are taking action over the fact that a degree is not enough in today’s world, and more courses are offering a year in industry, helping to organise work placements abroad, and encouraging students to participate in extracurricular activities and gain more work experience to compete in the graduate jobs market. However, there is still much more to be done to improve the quality of degrees, since many students are often left feeling that they have few career prospects in return for a mountain of debt.
Considering that the issues of grade inflation, poorly respected courses and questionable value for money remain prevalent in the higher education sector, there is still a dilemma as to how further study can continue to be an attractive option for young people seeking to equip themselves with the skills to succeed in a world of work that is rapidly changing.
Students are a section of society that have had their lives most drastically affected by the disruption of the past few years, and are now facing a future of rising debt and a job market that is still reeling from the pandemic. Many have stood in solidarity with striking lecturers, whose need for improved working conditions in order to deliver the best quality teaching has remained largely unresolved. The conversation around inflating student numbers is arguably tone-deaf when 40 per cent of UK academics are so stressed that they feel incapable of remaining at their jobs to teach them. As such, if universities remain first and foremost a business which favours profit over education, young people’s prospects will continue to look more bleak than previous generations.