Ben Hughes is Vice Principal (Industry Engagement) at Pearson College London

If a week is a long time in politics, a month is an eternity in the politics of higher education.

It began with Chair of the Education Select Committee, Robert Halfon (Politics, University of Exeter), decrying the “paltry returns” students receive from their academic degrees, calling for an end to the “obsession” with them given the increasingly questionable graduate premium, and issuing a clarion call for an expansion of degree apprenticeships - even going so far as to argue that universities which decline to offer them should lose some of their public funding.

“The labour market does not need an ever-growing supply of academic degrees,” he declared, gladdening the hearts of all King Lear’s middle daughter’s descendants in comments later echoed by the Prime Minister.

February duly ended with May (Geography, University of Oxford) criticising “one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world".

I.e. the one created under her Conservative predecessor (PPE, University of Oxford), in which "All but a handful of universities charge the maximum possible fees for undergraduate courses… Three-year courses remain the norm. And the level of fees charged do not relate to the cost or quality of the course”.

In this she echoed her Education Secretary, Damian Hinds (PPE, University of Oxford) who had days earlier said that course fees should be determined by "… a combination of three things: the cost [to the university] to put it on, the benefit to the student and the benefit to our country and our economy".

This in turn drew criticism from his immediate predecessor, Justine Greening (Business Economics and Accounting, University of Southampton) who warned that the Government's impending review will likely be challenging, given the complexity of defining what constitutes a "beneficial" degree.

This does undeniably raise interesting questions. For instance:

  • Are the fluffy arts degrees studied by the former more beneficial than the latter’s hard-nosed business degree by virtue of their… geography?
  • Does the provenance of a degree, to quote an apocryphal story about Ms Greening, show what success looks like, more than its subject?
  • And does the fact that all these illustrious politicians still them have degrees, whatever their respective benefits, mean that they still underpin success?
  • Would they be mere shadows of themselves without those magical letters after their name?

Quite a question, given Jeremy Corbyn left the then North London Polytechnic before acquiring them after his, and Angela Raynor’s alma mater is the university of life.

So what to make of this cruellest of months (T.S. Eliot clearly had a bad April Fools’ Day once) for our nation’s universities?

  • Do their alumni receive increasingly paltry returns?
  • Is the lack of diversity in their course offering remotely surprising?
  • Who really benefits from their output?
  • And are tuition fees truly worth the paper their degrees are written on?

The conclusion of this excellent article on the graduate premium makes for depressing reading. "Most young people will want a degree” says the writer. “It may not boost their earnings as much as they had hoped, but without one, they will probably fare even worse."

Far from reassuring if you've just spent over £27K on a degree.

But what to do whilst recruiters persist in recruiting graduates for non-graduate jobs?

Halfon may be right in criticising the obsession with the academic degrees possessed by so many of our governing classes, but whilst your CV is never fully dressed without one, it is hardly likely to abate.

Perhaps the definition of unlawful discrimination in recruitment could be extended to include requiring a degree for a non-graduate job?

After all, if the qualification is often really required as a ‘signifier’ for other things, surely it could be argued that this amounts to backdoor discrimination?

But then of course that would just push the debate onto what constitutes a ‘graduate job’ – as elusive a concept I fear as a ‘beneficial degree’.

Indeed what counts as an ‘academic degree’? Does it include what many would dismiss as the pseudo academic study of essentially vocational disciplines?

Perhaps we shouldn’t trespass where angels fear to tread. Let’s focus instead on ensuring that when students study for vocational purposes, their courses serve as a genuine means to those particular instrumental ends.

I am not generally one for reasoning the need, but if the academic piper is playing a different tune to the one paid for by the student, that doesn’t seem entirely fair.

Should Russell Group universities be forced to offer degree apprenticeships, as Halfon suggests?

Surely not. At a time when alternative providers to traditional universities, whether in the public or private sector, are challenging those universities’ stranglehold on the glittering prizes, in partnership with industry brands every bit as potent as Oxbridge’s, it seems crazy and counter-productive to wake the dreaming spires from their slumber.

A Mickey Mouse degree apprenticeship with Disney, should one ever be offered, may well be worth more than [INSERT FAVOURITE HOBBY-HORSE HERE].

But it is in the realm of degree apprenticeships that I believe the circle of higher educational life may truly be squared.

The lack of diversity in the traditional degree market may be the cause of alarm for our PM, but it is surely no surprise.

The inflexible structure of tuition fees tied to outcomes not time means providers have little incentive to look beyond the traditional three years.

And the signalling effect of lower course fees should absolutely come as no surprise to those well-versed in the price mechanism operating in the context of an inherently positional market.

But with degree apprenticeships, to paraphrase Take That, everything changes but u[niversities].

Suddenly somebody else is paying the piper – somebody whose needs are symbiotically connected to those of the learner, but whose wants and preferences may be quite distinct.

They do want courses which genuinely enhance the skills, as well as the knowledge, of the learner and will not pay for those which don’t.

They may well want courses which start at different times to those mandated by the traditional academic calendar and which finish sooner.

And unlike individual consumers with relatively weak bargaining power, they are strong enough to assert those preferences in the face of producers keen to acquire or keep valuable market share.

I believe that both students and employers genuinely benefit from higher education, and that society benefits in ways far broader than this economic analysis suggests.

But to ensure optimal benefits from higher education we need a genuinely diverse ecosystem, in which the highly traditional academic degree delivered in a Russell Group university has just as much place as the highly vocational degree apprenticeship co-delivered by an alternative provider in partnership with an employer.

I further believe that this ecosystem is just at the point of creation, and that the savings to the public purse promised by the Apprenticeship Levy may ultimately create conditions which allow a reduction in the cost of degrees to individual students generally, not just to those sponsored by companies on apprenticeships.

It would be a great shame if at the very moment when a hundred flowers look like coming into bloom in the spring, they were killed off by the icy political winds of February.

Ben Hughes

This article is written in Ben's personal capacity and represents his own individual opinions rather than those of Pearson College London, where he is Vice Principal and a lecturer in Contract Law.               

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