Are too many people going to University? 

The Telegraph have set up a little argument tool attached to their stories about higher education. They pose a question, and take you through counter-arguments.  So, say you click ‘no’ to the question about too many people going to university – what happens?

The first contention is about scarcity:

This is a classic ‘More Means Worse’ argument – but it needs you to carry a notion of value by reason of scarcity through quality (the Ferrari) into human attributes.  If I enjoy good health, that’s not made inferior because other people enjoy it too. Why should education work like that? 

But potentially the Ferrari analogy has another side.  It is, after all, just a make of car.  There’s something about the exponential increase of costs with high value cars.  Is an elite car worth 10 times the value of a basic car?   Is an elite education worth 10 times the value of a basic education? 

Ah, the ‘Micky Mouse’ course argument.  Can be applied to courses too academic or too vocational and always relies on fictious examples (courses in Sports have really strong employment outcomes, but can be rendered as ‘David Beckham’ studies).  There are more subjects of study in the university in 2016 than there were in 1966 – nursing and teaching, but also media or sports.  Where does the ‘Micky Mouse’ line fall?

The UK had done well to control the reputational range of courses in providers – the ‘academic infrastructure’ of the Dearing report managed that. However, as dearly as I’d love to defend each and every course in each and every provider, the Government has designated a BSc (!) in Homeopathy – so I can’t really…

The alternatives are important – remember that Ed Milliband talked about the ‘other 50%’.  There are other things that people can do after leaving compulsory education.  But the Telegraphy said, bodies such as DFE came up with performance measures of getting pupils into universities.  Look at School websites – they are all about getting pupils into high reputation universities. 

Note however the phrasing of the last sentence – university is good for ‘some’ people but apprenticeships could be better for ‘many’.

Here is the favourite myth; university needs to be ‘hard’ to get into.  If more people are getting the qualifications that universities accept, then standards must be falling and if more people are going, then standards at university must also be falling. Neither of these are necessarily true. It had to be argued that the pool of applicants could be expanded beyond 5% of the population (although Amis made his More Means Worse case against it).  

We have used selection as a proxy for quality.  Rationing entry to selective universities on the basis of prior preparation is a rational action.  When there was a surplus of applicants to available places, it made sense to raise the requirements – better prepared students bring many advantages; including that they improve a university’s league table position.  Courses that might have said students need BBB to succeed, moved that to ABB, AAB or AAA.  The course didn’t become ‘harder’, so if it now says it will accept students with BBB again, that’s not lowering standards.

As Nick Hilman has wondered, why hasn’t the UK embraced the notion of a ‘comprehensive’ or open access university?  The OU would accept students without qualifications, and mature students have had different routes to study.  For those universities that had policies close to open access, funding policies (such as the punative completition rules HEFCE imposed) or the aforementioned reputational issues from league tables.

The Telegraph does offer the positive side to the ‘Are too many people going to university’ argument.  It is important that policy makers do more to engage with both sides of the argument – this remains a live argument, even though we ought to have moved on.

August is the cruellest month

I’ve said this before, but August brings out the worst in Higher Education press coverage. This year we have additional variables; a higher education bill in passage through parliament, changes to fees and grants, and the whole uncertainty of Brexit.

We’ve always had increased media attention in August; a section of the population is paying especial attention to higher education for obvious reasons.  The media, normally seeing a decrease in political stories, can turn to features and comment about higher education.  Waiting for their place at university or college to be confirmed, a potential student can find hundreds of pieces which offer advice and guidance or provide warnings.  Each year interns will produce new pieces on their first week at university (which generally will have been a residential experience on a full time course).  Amongst this siren voices will call, warning those same  potential students of the doom that awaits them if they go to university.

This year, they’ve started early.  The Intergenerational Foundation (IF) has made a big splash with its report on Graduate Premiums.  As the return on investment argument has been so prevalent,  higher education will always now be vulnerable to this.  As with the CIPD report last August, problems with the data will not be picked up.  IF don’t muck about with their worry – is the premium a ‘manna, myth or plain mis-selling’ (posed as a question which can be left hanging).  As often seems to happen, it is in the picking up of these stories that the cruellest work is done.  Mostly under the guise of this header: are too many people going to university? 

The Telegraph offers us two columnists picking up on both IF and the removal of grants.  First Eliot Barker, who’s about to do an economics degree, offers reassurance on the of those removal of grants, mostly because he’ll be ok with his own anticipated graduate premium.  Those who are taking degrees in ‘David Beckham Studies’ might not be so lucky (naturally the 8 year old report he cites about a Sports degree with Beckham in it doesn’t quite back up his claim).

Liam Harrington gives us the employer perspective.  Liam, who runs a company called UNILAD, is looking for experience and dedication more than whether someone has a degree. This seems sensible – few roles would simply take on graduates without finding out if they are interested or capable of doing the job. But this is extended into a general concern about university – especially non-vocational degrees. 

Potential students are advised to gain experience as well as their degree, again sensible advice, and one that has always been a feature of the area that Liam works in.  UNILAD describes itself as:

A young and innovative media company, our rapidly growing platform connects people to the latest trending stories and news. 

As an example, it is currently looking for a ‘Trending Gossip Writer’ to ‘constantly keep up with the world news as it breaks’, to ‘live and breathe all things trending’ etc.  The role requires familiarity with social media, news production, writing articles in an engaging and funny way. And, at the end of the requirements, UNILAD is looking for someone who is 

Educated to degree level or equivalent

Clearly, even with a ‘vocational’ degree, any applicant who isn’t able to show that they can ‘Obsessively track social media trends across platforms’  won’t be suitable.  In effect there’s no necessary reason that they should have to be a graduate, but here’s the rub – being, say, an English graduate wouldn’t prevent them from working for UNILAD, but would also enable them to also consider a wide range of other roles too. 

In August, it would be nice if the siren voices, whether they are think tanks or the columnists that respond to them, could seek a balance.  Otherwise it just seems cruel to close down options for people who might be on the verge of a transformational experience in higher education.