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.


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