The Blog

A Degree Too Far?

On Monday, Nick Clegg 'promised' the government would not raise tuition fees to £16,000. Today, thousands of young people will continue to apply to a large variety of universities and Higher Education Institutions and whilst you read this article thousands of highly intelligent and talented young graduates languish in unemployment and poorly paid jobs. Fees have ceased to be the most important issue when talking about higher education. This honour is now reserved for the education and guidance received before higher education, the decreasing value of higher education qualifications and the lack of opportunities after achieving that hard earned qualification.

Last Thursday, the panel and audience on the BBC's Question Time debated the position of British education after England's dismal ranking in a recent study into literacy and numeracy performance by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development . Sarah Churchwell, Professor of American Literature at the University of East Anglia voiced her concerns by stating that 'literacy has dramatically declined' in the past fourteen years and that she's 'not sure if she believes in the national curriculum'. Churchwell also commented that pupils are merely being taught to pass tests rather than learning the skills to understand the subject, that teachers need to be left alone to teach and that between her and her peers at other universities they had noticed a distinct decline in the calibre of students. Labour MP, Diane Abbott, correctly identified that Tony Blair's attempt to put 50% of young people in higher education may have pushed students to attend university at the expense of real and valuable basic skills. Conservative MP, Adam Afriyie commended Michael Gove's current mission to make the exam system more robust and reverse grade inflation. Potential solutions from the audience suggested teaching fewer subjects in primary school, focusing on grammar, increasing the school starting age and improving basic care for children.

Despite the devolution in literacy and numeracy in the UK and the hike in fees introduced by the government in 2012, Student Support Application figures for 2012/13 would suggest that university attendance levels are still increasing. This may be due to a number of factors including increases in international students attracted by improved courses and perhaps more predictably, the annual increase in the population. Actual attendance figures are varied, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) suggest 49% of 17-30 year olds were in higher education in 2011/12, however under closer inspection this figure is more likely to be below 40%. Whether the Tory's are wrangling the figures to their advantage remains to be seen.

With such a thriving university network on our shores offering ever 'improving' student support services and increased opportunities for students to gain industry experience during their tenures it is a worry that we continue to have highly-personable, life-experienced graduates with First Class and Upper Second Class degrees from good universities in minimum wage sales, hospitality and retail jobs or even unemployed.

It is easy to poke fingers and blame the devaluation of degrees on Tony Blair's optimistic, yet unrealistic 50% policy leading to the subsequential push of youngsters throughout the land through university doors by education providers. However, Blair's well-intentioned but ill-conceived plan predictably failed and figures suggest numbers didn't significantly increase at all. Once more, the small increases in Higher Education numbers which were attained saw an avalanche of students studying oversubscribed degree subjects with questionable value and application in the real world.

The standard of Britain's top flight higher education institutions (HEIs) is demonstrated annually by the constant performance and continued attraction of high calibre domestic and international students. The importance of HEIs to the economy is obvious, but the value of a degree for many students has changed.

A good indicator of the value of a degree is the habits of mature students. In the past few years there has been a clear trend of mature students turning away from universities. From this information we can infer that not only may the high fees be putting off recreational learners but also prospective mature students can see more value in continuing in their line of work. In other words, the value of working and gaining continued career experience is outweighing the value of the addition of a degree.

Although it is important to have a wide variety of different students at any HEI, an age-old concern is the sheer number of degree subjects individual universities are offering and whether this huge menu of education is affecting core academic disciplines. It is true that many universities have a number of strong departments, but it should never be acceptable to have weak departments at an institution which should be preparing students for a skilled career. Although university rankings are judged by the performance of top students, it wouldn't be unwise to assume that many HEIs make calculated decisions to sometimes earn money over focusing on attracting the most talented, ambitious and hardworking students.

Many of the issues related to the continued devaluation of degrees stem from secondary and further education. The careers advice services of high schools and further education providers continues to be patchy, under-funded and often un-helpful. Secondary and further education providers need to provide insightful careers and guidance services which truly cater to the individual strengths and interests of their students. The Department for Education, teachers and employers need to improve their communication to ensure students can access internships and more relevant work experience placements. Further work also needs to be done to change the attitudes of the masses to remove any remaining stigma and to inform on the advantages and importance of more students taking vocational education routes that lead directly into employment rather than taking a 'Mickey-Mouse' degree, which as Boris Johnson pointed out 'were just the job' in 2007, but in reality, since the global financial crisis of 2008, it has become increasingly wiser to follow a education route which offers work experience and the potential of a job.

Entry to university can take people on many pathways including academic or vocational further education routes. University foundation courses can offer an important lifeline for students who may not have attained the entry grades they needed but it must be argued that in many cases students should be re-taking the year in further education rather than buying a place at university. It would be interesting to see whether the money the state gains through having student 'underachievers' in universities outweighs the risk of talented graduates being out of career line jobs because of a saturated graduate market.

Whether you view universities as businesses or charities, they make money. Many students attend for the fun, the life experience and because they feel they are missing out if they don't go. But, as fun as attending university is, being able to name all the bars of the Spanish resort of Salou may not get you a good job. In a small private study participants were asked the question 'Since the hike in fees introduced in 2012, have universities been improving?' 46.9% answered 'No', 53.1% answered 'I don't know' and no one answered 'Yes'.

Students in secondary and further education should not underestimate the importance of working hard and achieving the highest possible result educationally, be it in vocational or academic subjects. When making choices it is important to consider the prospect of gaining experience with gaining knowledge and getting this balance is crucial. Youngsters should not be afraid to go down vocational pathways, it is possible to return to further study later. There is also plenty of professional support and even funds available for entrepreneurs to set up new businesses. Finally, the power and importance of internships should never be underestimated.

Until the data is processed and released regarding the attendance and performance of current higher education students and institutions it is hard to make any valued conclusions about the impact of increased fees but what is certain is that there are much larger issues within education which urgently need to be addressed.