Well done, Mrs May. It’s absurd for the state to fund degrees in circuses, surfing and The Beatles
REJOICE. The Prime Minister has got something important absolutely right. In a speech yesterday, Theresa May denounced the colossal racket of across-theboard maximum university fees. There is to be a year-long independent review of higher education funding.
Mrs May says: ‘ The level of fees charged does not relate to the cost or quality of the course.’ Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary, announced that, in future, fees will be determined by the ‘benefit to the student and the benefit to our country’.
Since they spoke, there have been howls of protest from the Labour Party, which wants higher education to be free at point of access; from the recently sacked and thus embittered former education secretary Justine Greening, who says that variable tuition fees risk disadvantaging poorer students; and from the usual suspects in the education establishment.
Most of us, however, will celebrate the fact that Mrs May has opened a debate about one of the nonsenses of our age — insistence that every school-leaver should aspire to attend university.
Acquiring a degree has become an almost religious rite, heedless of how silly is the course pursued, or how pathetic the ‘learning institution’ where it takes place.
What are we thinking of to provide any kind of public support for students to secure a degree in Surf Science and Technology at the University of Plymouth, or to study Design and Delivery of Sex and Relationship Education at the University of Central Lancashire.
These are not satirical figments of my imagination, but as real as Bath Spa’s degree in Contemporary Circus and Physical Performance, and Liverpool Hope’s Masters in The Beatles, Popular Music and Society.
There are 109 universities and colleges in England, 130 in the UK, offering more than 30,000 courses. Many are a waste of the students’ time, and their own and the nation’s money. They benefit no one save the universities’ own employees and especially vicechancellors, many of whom are paid insanely inflated salaries, because none of these institutions is subjected to rigorous independent supervision and scrutiny, such as they assuredly need.
In the scrabble to sustain toe-holds in league tables, almost all pursue degree inflation. A First was once a mark of excellence. Today, Firsts are dished out like sweets to a third of all who bother to take Finals.
The people in charge of these places are as much fraudsters as the Lagos conmen who run online identity scams, or the smooth-talkers who sell Tower Bridge to gullible tourists.
Attending most universities has become a mindless ritual: it is hard to know whether to be more troubled by the standard of the students, many of whom struggle to learn basic skills — in essay-writing, for instance — which they should have acquired at school, or by the shortcomings of their teachers.
I take no pride in myself having become a drop- out from Oxford, after a year there as an Exhibitioner. I was one of many who felt I was wasting my time and my parents’ cash. I was unusual only in that a job offer made it economically possible for me to quit.
All my own children went to respected universities, emerged with respectable degrees, and certainly qualified for Firsts in Clubbing. I paid their fees, so they cost the state nothing, but it seemed to me that all they gained from the experience were those pieces of parchment, so valued by our society yet largely meaningless, stating that they had lived three years in Cambridge and Newcastle respectively.
A recent survey shows that employers increasingly prefer to hire young recruits with three years’ workplace experience than those who have spent the same amount of time studying arts or social science subjects at university. The young are peddled the fantasy, often by teachers, that they have a right to fulfil themselves on their own terms. One website I explored yesterday urges schoolleavers: ‘Apply to Teesside University — get the career you want.’
Yet this is wildly unlikely to happen. Tens of thousands of young people are studying drama without providing evidence of talent, and thus without the faintest hope of making a living as actors; tens of thousands attend media and communications courses, when only a fraction can hope to work in our industry.
In the decades ahead, technology is destined to destroy millions of traditional middleclass jobs. My new hero, the billionaire philanthropist and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, said to me last summer: ‘The economic future of the average plumber is going to be brighter than that of the average college graduate.’
The smartest young lawyers, bankers, accountants and suchlike will continue to prosper. But the average — which is what most of us are — can only hope to prosper if they acquire skills and pursue career choices for which there are markets.
It is a wicked fib to tell the young they can choose what they want to do in life, because only the brightest will do so.
If they hope to earn decent money, to enjoy some comfort and security, they are barmy if they start by spending three years acquiring a degree in Horology at Birmingham City University.
Thoughtful teachers might riposte to that: ‘It will be a tragedy if higher education becomes simply vocational training, instead of fulfilling its proper function, which is to allow the young to develop intellectual curiosity.’
This is true up to a point: we shall cease to be a civilised society if we fail to cherish centres of intellectual excellence, focused on the Russell Group of Britain’s 24 foremost universities. But it is long past time to recognise that scores of Britain’s other so-called ‘centres of learning’ are mere purveyors of snake oil, defrauding their students, above all, by demanding the same £9,250 tuition fees as an Oxbridge college.
How best to move on? It seems wrong to allow students in say, science, IT or medicine, to be charged more for such courses than Plymouth’s would-be surfers. That would merely encourage schoolleavers towards cheaper courses that will do neither them nor Britain any good.
It seems far wiser for the state to focus the heaviest subsidies, direct or indirect, to generate skills that promise to be in high demand — especially science and technology — and to permit less money to be wasted on the most obviously rubbishy courses which produce graduates destined for the benefits queue.
A recent survey showed that two years after leaving university, one- third of ex-students fill jobs in which their higher-level skills have no application. Almost 44 pc of police officers ranked sergeant and above now boast possession of degrees, yet there has seldom been less reason to think our police are adequately led.
There is no reason a student should not choose to study The Beatles at Liverpool Hope, or for that matter Lego at Cambridge — provided we are not invited to contribute a penny to the process.
We have entered an era in which public money — whether for defence, infrastructure or education — will be chronically tight. Tuition fees must be retained, and instead time called on institutions which are cheating students.
Today, 42 per cent of all 19-year- olds attend higher education, yet many are no more suited to it than I was. We should steer them towards a further education that will give them marketable skills. Scores of phoney universities should revert to becoming genuine technical colleges.
The education gravy train has hit the buffers, and all credit to Theresa May for proclaiming the fact.