Since the 1963 Robbins report, widening access to university has been a central aim of UK education policy. Roughly half of young people now study for a degree, against 4 per cent when the report was written.
Yet rising participation is welcome only if the benefits justify the cost. Many undergraduates enrol to learn valuable skills or cultivate their intellectual powers, the high-minded reasons that the Robbins committee anticipated. For some, however, a university education is like an interview suit: an expensive and ungratifying purchase that is a necessary prerequisite to respectable employment. Others see a degree as a cheap punt. Insulated from tuition fees by contingent loans, they pay nothing unless they earn more than £21,000.
Consequently, there are still too many courses of questionable value. Some, such as equestrian psychology, seem whimsical. Even those that carry a vocational pay-off may not be the best way of preparing students for work. It is unclear whether the £100,000 or more in extra post-tax income that graduates receive over a lifetime reflects the value of skills learned at university or merely the prejudices of recruiters. Diplomas are so ubiquitous that employers suspect intellectual deficiency in those who did not go to college.
Adding to these qualms are the difficulties many graduates encounter in the labour market. Financial Times research published last week shows that graduate earnings have fallen in real terms, even as tuition fees have risen. Meanwhile, jobs that a decade ago required only high school qualifications are increasingly filled by applicants with degrees.
Public policy needs to avoid promoting fruitless study. Soft loans designed to make sure that no one would be put off by the cost of a degree should be scaled back, perhaps with exceptions for shortage subjects such as technology and engineering. The government should also build on existing efforts to revive industrial apprenticeships. Although there are a few respected schemes run by employers such as Rolls-Royce, teachers and students remain sceptical of their currency in the job market. Many would-be applicants are put off by the stigma attached to those who shun college education.
Since the 1960s, millions of Britons’ prospects have been brightened by educational opportunities that were once reserved for an elite. Yet young people’s horizons will not be widened by pushing university for its own sake.
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