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One of the least remarkedupon scandals of recent years is the mis-selling of Higher Education. Pupils are now told, from a very early age,
that university should be the great goal in schooling; that there is some kind of binary distinction between those with initials after their name and the also-rans. David Willetts, the Universities Minister, remarked recently that graduates make on average £100,000 more over a lifetime — a windfall which he says his government may penalise them for in the form of a graduate tax. There is a scam going on here which the young ought to be alerted to.
This year, around 160,000 school-leavers will miss out on the university place which they sought. Some will have failed to study sufficiently hard for their A-levels, others will have fallen into the gap between the demand for places and their supply, but almost all will feel sorely disappointed. Such is the pressure and expectation (schools often judge themselves on how many sixth-formers they pack off to Freshers’ Week) that a life not spent on campus is somehow deemed a failure — a fundamental misreading of both the modern economy and the worrying diversity in quality of degree courses.
Politicians have done as much as anyone else to exacerbate this fear and uncertainty. The last government aggressively market-
ed its tuition fee policy by insisting that the average graduate earns £400,000 more over a lifetime than the average non-graduate — so why should they mind coughing up? And even though this official estimate has since plummeted to the figure Mr Willetts now quotes, the same argument is being peddled. Universities — old and new — now sell degrees as though they are investments with astonishingly good returns. All a student needs to do is sign on the dotted line.
Certainly, the best courses pay spectacular dividends. A typical medical graduate might earn around £340,000 more than a non-graduate over their lifetime. But an arts graduate can expect only £35,000 more, according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers. At times during the past decade, that figure has even slipped into negative territory, suggesting that young people could earn more with a clutch of A-levels and some real-life experience than with an arts degree. Factor in student debts — which could top £25,000 for this year’s university entrants — and the ‘graduate premium’ rapidly loses its shine. Pushing the young through university may well keep them off the unemployment registers for a few years, and may even boost Britain’s booming domestic production of marijuana. But it does not always change their fortunes.
According to the Association of Graduate Recruiters, there will be 69 applicants for every graduate job this year — compared to 49 last year, and 31 the year before. As a degree rapidly devalues, employers scan CVs for the old currency: signs of whether someone has a work ethic and can learn on the job. When students are judged only by their work experience placements, another candidate who has had three years of real work is at an advantage. A third of graduates now end up in jobs for which they do not require a degree. At some former polytechnics, that ratio exceeds two in five.
In the end, these graduates face a simple but devastating equation: no graduate job, no graduate premium, and a head full of debt worries for years to come. And, if Vince Cable has his way, a higher rate of tax. These young people will have been mis-sold a future by a political and educational elite who either don’t understand or are wilfully ignoring basic labour market economics. Many courses do, of course, transform a student’s chances in life. Graduates still tend to do better at finding any employment, and that’s before one considers the other benefits — knowledge, friendships and opportunities — that university has to offer. But the hope of financial gain from taking a degree will often be misguided. Whatever our politicians might say, a mortarboard on one’s head does not necessarily translate into a wad of cash in the back pocket. For those who have failed to get into university this autumn, let this be a consolation.
Baby Cam’s question time W
hat could David Cameron wish for his new daughter? All fathers want their children to grow up in a better world. The Prime Minister is in the position to forge one. He has a good chance of his youngest daughter celebrating her next nine birthdays at Chequers, and there is much he can do in the meantime.
There are several questions we hope Baby Cam (her name was not chosen when we went to press) will be able to ask her father on her tenth birthday. The first is ‘What was a sink school, Daddy?’ The academies proposal by Michael Gove can — if properly rolled out — make them disappear. Why, a future generation might wonder, would a parent send their child to a school they knew was bad? We can hope that today’s infants grow up thinking it odd that government had such control over people’s lives. Or that a country tolerated a system which served the poor so much worse than it served the rich. Next,
‘What was a waiting list, Daddy?’ Rationing of healthcare under an NHS bureaucracy is an absurd notion. And perhaps ‘Who were the Liberal Democrats, Daddy?’ It is far from clear that the party will survive the decade.
But, sadly, there is no chance of the tenyear-old Cameron asking, ‘What was national debt?’ On current projections, she’ll be a graduate before it returns to pre-Labour levels. As the Tory election poster had it, ‘Dad’s nose. Mum’s eyes. Gordon Brown’s debt.’
THE SPECTATOR 28 April 2010 3