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24 February 2022

Reforms should hit exploitative universities instead of poor students

Pupils who flunk their GCSEs are too often funnelled on to expensive degrees that will be of no benefit to them.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Is it morally justifiable to ban teenagers who do badly in their GCSEs from going on to university? Judging by the response to the government’s proposal to do just that, absolutely not. The backlash to reports on Wednesday (23 February) that pupils who don’t get a grade 4 (equivalent to a C) in GCSE English and maths will be ineligible for government-backed student loans has been swift and severe. Social mobility experts have accused the government of “penalising” and “condemning” pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, who are more likely to struggle to meet minimum entry requirements.

Around 30 per cent of GCSE candidates fail to pass English and maths, rising to almost half of those from disadvantaged households. Under the proposal, these pupils would be effectively barred from studying anything — music, graphic design, nursing — unless they are somehow able to finance their studies themselves. This seems heartbreakingly unfair, not to mention a direct contradiction of the government’s “levelling up” agenda, which promised to help those left behind, not punish them. I am not about to defend it. I do think, however, that those enraged by the prospect of limiting university places should take a closer look at the system as a whole — a system that involves hundreds of thousands of young people signing up for loans they will never pay back, for courses they’d be better off not doing.

The way higher education in the UK is set up actively incentivises universities to exploit their students as much as possible. Since tuition fees are capped at £9,250 a year for home students and almost all courses charge the maximum amount, regardless of the cost of the degree or the earning potential it offers, the easiest way for higher education institutions to make money (other than trying to tempt as many overseas students as possible) is to offer the cheapest courses they can to the highest number of students.

[See also: Why women should pay half for university (and economists should pay double)]

Not all of them do this, of course. And I’m not about to name names or speculate about the intentions of any individual university boss (however much some of them earn). But at a time when budgets are being squeezed and academia is in crisis, the common-sense strategy is stack ’em (ie students) high, sell ’em cheap — or rather, sell them courses that are cheap to offer (humanities and arts subjects that can be taught to huge numbers by one poorly-paid lecturer) but can be set at the same price as expensive degrees like engineering or medicine.

There is no money-back option for graduates whose degrees do not open the doors they expected they would when they left school, starry-eyed and full of hope. They spend their working lives trying to repay debt that increases at a rate so eye-watering that four fifths will never pay back their student loans in full. (In fact, today the government has announced changes to the student finance system that will drastically increase the cost of university for those who begin their courses from 2023. From next year loans will not be written off until 40 years after a student graduates, as opposed to 30 years now, so most students will be making repayments well into their sixties, regardless of how beneficial their degrees turn out to be.)

This is a problem for the students doomed to graduate with mountains of debt and degrees that render them unemployable; for the graduates with more valuable degrees who subsidise them through the interest on student loans; and for everyone else whether they went to university or not, funding the shortfall through taxes to the tune of about £7bn a year. Everyone loses except the universities, which continue to rake in the fees from the next generation of hopeful students with little to no oversight as to whether their courses offer value for money.

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A higher education system designed to prop up universities at the expense of students and taxpayers is neither responsible nor sustainable. Fixing it, however, is a political minefield. The most obvious strategy of allowing universities to set their own fees, financed privately rather than by government loans, is deeply unpopular — especially given the landscape in the US where parents must start saving for their child’s college fund as soon as they’re born. So the only alternatives are to address the problem from the supply side, by regulating which degrees universities can claim government-funded student loans for to ensure they’re worth it, or the demand side, by restricting the number of students.

There are some tentative efforts towards the former. Earlier this year the higher education minister Michelle Donelan pointed out that “at 25 universities and other providers, less than half of students who begin a degree can expect to graduate and find professional employment or further study within 15 months”, and announced a series of reforms to “stamp out these low-quality courses”. There was fury in academic circles: how dare the government try to equate the value of a degree with the employment prospects linked to it. There is of course a case for studying subjects that enrich both the individual’s life and society at large in ways that go beyond straight-up finances. But if you’re pressuring teenagers to take on tens of thousands of pounds in debt for an investment in their future, it is deeply unethical not to try to ensure that investment is as sound as possible.

It is also unethical to promote university degrees as a certain path to prosperity, especially when the numbers don’t stack up. As my colleague Will Dunn recently reported for the New Statesman: “A person studying creative arts not only overpays for their tuition, but can expect — according to the government’s most recent audit — to earn less than if they hadn’t gone to university. Overall, 15 per cent of female and a quarter of male graduates would have been (financially) better off not going to university.”

And so the government is tackling the demand side too, using the crude metric of GCSE grades to try to predict which pupils stand to benefit least from a degree and stop them from getting one. Minimum eligibility requirements will indeed cut down student numbers — not by increasing alternative opportunities like apprenticeships or ensuring young people have the information they need to make the best choices, but by limiting the prospects of the most disadvantaged. That is both discriminatory and cruel, pulling up the ladder for the poorest pupils, those from minority backgrounds and anyone who struggles with English or maths but excels in other subjects.

But those raging that this move is an attack on social mobility should think harder about the current system, in which a pupil who flunks their GCSEs can be funnelled on to a costly university course under the illusion that it will benefit them. We have allowed disadvantaged young people to become cash cows for institutions that profit off their hopes and dreams and are rewarded for the number of students they teach, not the quality of the teaching. And if blocking low-achieving pupils from university isn’t the right solution, maybe the outrage about it can help prompt a much-needed conversation about how to fix a university model that is broken, exploitative and utterly unsustainable.

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