Well done, Mrs May. It’s ab­surd for the state to fund de­grees in cir­cuses, surf­ing and The Bea­t­les

Daily Mail - - News - By Max Hast­ings

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.

Pa­thetic

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.

Se­cu­rity

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.

Ben­e­fits

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.

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