Maybe too many people go to university

How many people should go to university? Paul Wiltshire argues that we need a proper debate about student numbers

Paul Wiltshire is a parent and campaigner for in-person teaching

Since high inflation reared its ugly head, the topic of higher education funding can no longer be ignored.

Student fees can’t just stay frozen forever as universities will be forced to continue cutting costs and driving up revenues in any way they can – with an inevitable drop in pedagogical standards.

Someone then is going to have to pay for this funding shortfall. Should it be students themselves through higher fees, the general taxpayer through government subsidy, or even employers by paying a levy whenever they hire graduates?

All of these options come at a cost to individuals or society collectively – so surely we should avoid them if we can.

So could we solve this funding crisis another way by capping and reducing student numbers? And using the savings on loan write-offs to increase direct government subsidy of fees?

God forbid

It is an option that feels like blasphemy to zealots, and there are many – including the likely new Education Minister Bridget Phillipson, who thinks that it is sacrilege to consider capping student numbers down from the current level.

But what is the optimal percentage of participation in higher education? We have around 50 per cent at the moment, but is this too many, not enough or just right?

The HESA Graduate Outcomes report just released clearly shows that there is a graduate premium, and the IFS report of 2020 attempts to quantify the impact of lifetime earnings for graduates and concludes that it is significant.

These reports are often quoted as proof of the success of higher education and reasons to increase the percentage even higher.

The Tony Blair Institute report of 2022 We don’t need no education even went as far as suggesting we should raise to 70 per cent by 2040. The Augur report of 2019’s whole premise (if you look at the section “Panels Principles” page 8) was more or less that higher education is a good thing for as many people as possible, so what is the best way to fund it.

But we are drawing the wrong conclusions from these reports. Just because the existing system of high participation gives a graduate premium, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the current system is the optimal system, or that it proves that we need as high participation as possible.

A tale of two cohorts

If we divide society into two cohorts, those that attend university and those that don’t, then the university cohort will be those who are not only on average more academic, but also more hard working and more conformist – so it is little wonder there is a career pay premium for this cohort.

But it isn’t necessarily because this cohort have spent three years immersed in academic study that makes them achieve higher paid careers – it is because they are drawn from the cohort where their overall attributes are more likely to be rewarded career wise by society.

The job market is now set up so that an increasing number of jobs will only accept you if you are a graduate – as the employers natural reasoning is that with 50 per cent participation rates, then they will be safer fishing in the graduate cohort for their staff rather than non-graduates, so we are creating an in-built prejudice against non-graduates.

So all these reports really prove is that “If you are a line tower, then society is going to reward you better”. Yet it is often claimed that these reports prove that participation rates should increase and that an unlimited number of young people can get tap into this graduate premium, without considering that there is only so much “graduate premium” in the job market to go around.

This mantra of ever increasing participation seems to defy all common sense because it is obvious that the majority of the jobs that society needs performing (a high proportion of which are manual or administration based, low to medium skilled, or managerial – but not actually academic) don’t actually need the incumbent to have spent their first three or four years of their adult life studying an academic course (more often than not in an unrelated subject)

Monopoly commissions

We need our populace to be educated, but why on earth are we buying into the notion that universities have the monopoly on the concept of “education” and thus they can only become “educated” by pouring more and more young adults through the system?

What about education in the workplace through informal learning from your peers, learning from being a part of a collective of people attempting to organise themselves productively, or learning through formal apprenticeship workplace-based skills training?

There is growing anecdotal evidence that shouldn’t be ignored that large numbers of students aren’t seamlessly waltzing into high paid careers – far from it, as the competition for genuine graduate jobs is often overwhelming due to the over supply of certain graduates.

Even those who get a job will likely be in one that is not at all related to their course, and even if the job is related somehow, often they will say that they have learned more in the first three weeks of their new job as they learnt in three years at university.

Many will be getting low “graduate” pay of not much more than £25k, or having to differentiate themselves in the jobs market by getting even more into debt by studying for a masters. The evidence that all is not rosy for the current generation of students is around us for all to see – including a growing mental health crisis caused by false hope and crushed expectations.

Time for change

So it is about time that a report was commissioned that made a genuine attempt to work out the optimal proportion who should attend higher education, given the huge costs to the individual of spending three or four years getting into student debt and to society of having to write off many of their loans.

And we need to be a little wiser about who we ask to carry out the report, as we would do well to guard against producing yet another report that was written by those who actually work in higher education and/or were higher education advocates – because we shouldn’t be surprised if the solutions this group suggest always involve a larger higher education sector involving more students, higher fees, more debt and more government subsidy.

I would like to see a few less professors named as authors of these reports, and a few more people not drawn from academia who are open minded to the concept that less formal higher education and more education in the workplace might just be the solution to solve student funding that we are looking for.

9 responses to “Maybe too many people go to university

  1. An interesting discussion point, but I fear there are problems with the initial assumption in this article: “If we divide society into two cohorts, those that attend university and those that don’t, then the university cohort will be those who are not only on average more academic, but also more hard working and more conformist – so it is little wonder there is a career pay premium for this cohort.”

    I don’t think it is on average true to say that people who do a non-degree apprenticeship are less hard working than people who do a degree apprenticeship, or people who have a non-graduate job are less hard working than people who have a graduate job – what is your definition of ‘hard working’?

    In which cohort is someone who leaves school at 18 and gets a non-graduate job to support their family in the immediate term, then goes to university when they are 30 to study a subject they are passionate about and which gives them the transferable skills to get a graduate job?

  2. My comments are based on averages. I think society is currently drumming into virtually all A Level students these days that the best choice for them is University based Higher education, so those with ambition, academic ability and conformist in nature are going to go along with this message. But of course there will be exceptions , and I am not for one minute saying that all those in each cohort will follow the average within their cohort. Paul Wiltshire

    1. Thanks for your reply.

      Defining ‘hard working’ as ‘ambition’ makes more sense – I was ambitious to learn as much as I could about my favourite school subject, but I didn’t want to work hard (I appreciate and admire people who do the hard physical work I can’t do), so the degree helped me to get a graduate job spending a few hours at a desk each day instead.

      I now wonder what the definition of ‘conformist’ is – the paragraph is saying on average students with A-levels who conform to society’s expectations to go to university get a job with a graduate premium, I see – but in that case students without A-levels who conform to society’s expectations not to go to university get a job without a graduate premium (and those who do not conform, and work hard to obtain alternative qualifications to go to university, get a job with a graduate premium) so conformity is not the dividing factor?

      1. Claire I,

        The key is that on average , It isn’t the fact that they have studied for 3 years that makes them better paid career wise, it is just the cohort they are drawn from.

        Conformist, for the purpose of my article, means the children who will pick up on the strong prevalent societal message that to get on in life career wise, then you should work hard in school , get as good grades as possible in your A-levels and then enter HE. And the non-conformists will be the ones who are more inclined to ignore societies messages and don’t work hard in school and aren’t that fussed about going into HE i.e. Totally against the societal message that is drummed into them. So my argument relies on the notion that on average, a child with exactly the same academic & general social ability and opportunity in life who is a conformist (as I had defined it) will be rewarded career wise better than a non-conformist.
        And if you add to that the actual societal prejudice that is created when society is divided into 50% graduates and 50% non-graduates (I believe that when society was split into 15% grads and 85% non-grads, then there was nowhere near as much prejudice against non grads), then it is no wonder that the conformists do better than the non conformists.

        1. Actually, perhaps the best way to explain my point is by an analogy. Let’s say HE didn’t exist in its current Uni-based Academic format, and that there was only on-the-job apprenticeships available to further your career and education for 50% of school leavers (and all other school leavers jsut ‘got a job’) and they were awarded on the basis of academic ability , application and general work ethic etc. In this instance, all of the equivalent reports would show that there is an “Apprenticeship Premium” and advocates of Apprenticeships would claim that this proves that Apprenticeships are working and that we should try to get higher than 50% into Apprenticeships. But it would prove no such thing.

  3. Exactly the same arguments were made against universal primary education in the 18th century and universal secondary education in the 20th century.

    These arguments ignore education’s increasing students’ capacity to appreciate, understand and act in the world. These benefits exist regardless of whether education matches some functionalist prescription.

    These arguments also ignore education’s transformation of work (Baker, 2009). Even notionally unskilled work is transformed by workers being literate, numerate, and able to put their work in a broader context.

    Baker, D. P. (2009). The educational transformation of work: towards a new synthesis. Journal of Education and Work, 22(3), 163-191.

    1. But I think I am right in saying that when we increased the age limit for universal education for children , then it was offered free to the children and paid through general taxation. This is completely different to society encouraging young adults to pay for it themselves and get into huge debt before they have even started out in life. I believe this is completely irresponsible as young adults are impressionable and will do what society expects them to do. Paul Wiltshire

  4. I do appreciate the question you are posing, Paul, but I think the assumption that the previous reports were wrong because their authors could not set aside their own inherent biases (my understanding of your argument) would be open to a fair bit of challenge. You would hope that any new author would be genuinely open minded about about what a report would say, but pre-selecting them in way you are suggesting, surely, opens them up to the same accusations of bias that you have essentially levelled at prior report authors?

    One thing I would also question in the article is the seeming assertion that it is the education system itself that has squeezed out workplace training. I don’t think that’s true. When I started my career, it was far more commonplace to be able to access professional training external to the institution. As various companies and sectors have encountered financial difficulties over the years, training budgets have been squeezed. Alongside that seems to be the rather strange assumption that graduates should somehow be ‘oven-ready’ employees as soon as they are employed with little but an orientation to set them up as meaningful workers. This is a gross over-simplification, but I would argue that workplace learning is essential for everyone to understand the business they are in, but appears to have been increasingly neglected in organisational budgets.

  5. I agree that pre-selecting the authors of any fresh reports based on their current inclinations towards the principle of the Massification of Higher education is problematic. However, it can’t be denied that the status quo is that most of the reports of this ilk are authored by those working in the profession and/or are ‘known’ Mass HE advocates, so there has to be some realignment in order that balanced reports are produced.

    With regard to workplace learning, I am basically saying that for the large majority of jobs, then this is the most effective way to get good at your job, and that spending an extra three years in academic study really isn’t worthwhile. I don’t think that HE education has pushed out the need for workplace training; actually I am arguing precisely the opposite i.e. That often the 3 years academic study is little use at all in the workplace for most jobs that society needs doing. And that employers need to be prepared & encouraged by Govt policy to provide this training whether it is formal or informal. Paul Wiltshire

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