File photo dated 16/07/08 of university graduates. A study by social mobility charity The Sutton Trust has found that eight of the UK's top schools get as many students into Oxford and Cambridge universities as three-quarters of all schools and colleges put together. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Friday December 7, 2018. The analysis showed just eight schools sent 1,310 pupils to Oxbridge over three years, while over the same period, 2,894 other schools sent just 1,220 students between them. See PA story EDUCATION Oxbridge. Photo credit should read: Chris Ison/PA Wire
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My recent Big Read on the challenges for higher education sparked a lively conversation with hundreds of readers about potential solutions to spiralling costs, unmanageable debt and questions over quality. 

The ideas generated were fascinating and controversial, many based on personal experiences from teachers and students. Some suggested different fee levels for courses based on their value to society, and having students, universities and employers share the costs of tuition fees. Others called for means-tested support and more transparency on university costs. The call for de-stigmatising manual work and vocational training was widespread. 

Here are some of the best comments. You can browse them all below the original story, and feel free to continue the conversation in the comments below. 

Improve quality of education across the board

As a former EU student, I think the British university system does a lot of things right. This includes the tuition fee system which I believe is fair and good value for money if you study for a heavyweight degree. However, the idea that we need 50% of the population to go to university is ludicrous. Instead, the government should look at the quality of the education on offer across the board: from school to PhD, and especially at non-university level. This also has the benefit of increasing the population’s overall level of education. 

My fear is that when the Conservatives talk about “encouraging vocational subjects” what they really mean is “pulling up the drawbridge to stop poor people getting a degree”, and Labour are only interested in throwing money at the problem to secure votes. — Nouv

Don’t force a university degree on everyone

As a former university lecturer I saw many students who aspired to highly selective jobs but had academic records that were mediocre at best. Some of them were unmotivated to study; some were constantly distracted by their chaotic personal lives; some simply were not academically intelligent. The university sector exploits those students by selling them a BA that they were always likely to do poorly in, and they duly perform poorly in it. 

The answer is to make university admission more selective again, design fairer admission procedures (eg based on projected attainment, not just past grades), and introduce a better system of vocational training for people who are ambitious but not good at academic study. — SXP

Think about the needs of potential employers

Usually, graduates are disconnected from the needs of the industry and business sector. I come from an engineering and technological background, and my thinking is focused on solving problems in a cost effective and efficient manner. This seems not to be the case with British universities, which focus their students towards being researchers and thinkers more than solving the needs and promoting the growth of businesses. — Paddington

Respect vocational training

My experience of German v English education was that the goal of German education was to shape individuals to fit into a role within society, whereas English education wanted to shape individuals into thinkers. Germany remains a much more rigid society in many respects, and manual workers and vocational training are respected in a way they are not in the UK. 

As a result, Germany has free education, high employment and good social cohesion, but, university is less jolly, the halls are run down and it is harder to get into an area if you fail the system. In the UK, many people who do not have aptitude to be intellectuals are pushed to go to university. As a result, they accrue large amounts of debt and become Starbucks baristas rather than barristers. Social cohesion is low and university tends to be viewed by the government as a short-term monetisation option rather than a long-term investment. — Cistercian

Put less emphasis on degrees when hiring

Anyone who has ever hired a newly minted degree earner, regardless of where they studied, will know that the university and degree is close to irrelevant to their performance and success in a job. Instead it’s attitude, thirst for new knowledge and self-motivation that are the leading indicators for a successful and well paid career and all these variables come from the parents, friends and family. I’d hire and pay more for a motivated student from Bolton before a lazy one from Cambridge every day of the week. — Rational Economist

Incentivise employers to support training and education

Employers are partly to blame. On the continent, employers give preference to native applicants for apprenticeships, pay them monthly wages and arrange for them to attend schools intermittently to obtain A-levels, if wanted. — Zedlitz

Cut overspending in universities

Having a teaching position in a university for 20+ years now, I have seen first-hand the trends mentioned here. I would add one more: that the spiralling costs are NOT because of the high salaries or high pension costs of the sector, but rather because a disproportionate number of administrators have been employed, and “senior management” have been giving themselves a 10 per cent raise every year for many years now . . .

Cut the fat cats’ salaries, get rid of some administrators who only act as a weight to the productive forces in our universities, cut down on pharaonic building projects (which incidentally cost through the roof: would you pay 60k per 10 sq m student room for your own home?), and indeed shut down some third-rate unis. The sector will be fine. — NM1

Consider a tax on earnings v student loans

Finance should be via equity funding, not debt funding. Institute a graduate tax of 1 per cent or so on lifetime earnings. Maybe a discount for those who remain in the country. — RiskAdjustedReturn

Three radical policy proposals

The situation has become ever more expensive because much of the purpose of getting a degree is signalling rather than human capital accumulation. Top universities control a very powerful rubber stamp, which students pay huge sums to acquire. If you want to fix it, here are three radical policy proposals: 

1) No more closed shops for the degree awarding process — the state has the ultimate power to confer degree awarding powers — the award of a degree from any institution should be conferred by open public examination, not who has paid that institution £9k/year for 3-4 years. This is exactly how secondary educational qualifications are assessed and awarded. This reduces the current incentives universities have for relative grade inflation, reduces the power of “prestigious” universities to freeride on that prestige without actually adding human capital, and would likely allow the market to discover the true value-add of costly live-in residential structures rather than distance learning.

2) Universities themselves should be at financial risk for at least part of the loans provided to undergraduates. Right now there is suspicion is that many operate as government subsidised paper-mills. If they have financial risk to the long-term wage outcomes of their students, they have incentives to restrict quantity of low quality courses and reduce human capital investment in types of education the labour market does not value in employees. 

3) Loan repayment should not be paid out of graduate earnings, but be funded out of payroll taxes on employers who employ more than a certain percentage of graduates in a specific type of job-function or pay grade. If employers want to employ graduates, they should be willing to pay for the resources they consume rather than transfer the financial risk on to the state, or 18-year-olds who cannot easily diversify or ensure outcomes. This also directly incentivises cheaper forms of education or apprenticeships, and disincentivises using higher education merely as a selection tool for prospective employees. — Lek

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