Cover Story

Education is for the benefit of all

Nick Hillman (Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute) remains convinced that a university education brings both personal and public benefit

When the Editor of Insight asked me to contribute a piece on ‘Is University Still Worthwhile?’, I contemplated sending in a one-word article that read, in its entirety, ‘Yes’. I suspected he might actually want a little more, so I then considered saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ But then I found out he wanted much more.

In one sense, it is a bizarre question. Why? Not since Ivan Illich’s 1971 book Deschooling Society have people seriously considered asking ‘Is School Worth It?’ Indeed, we have shifted in the opposite direction over time, as the school leaving age has risen from 10 to 14 to 15 to 16. Today, in England, you must have some education or training until you are 18. Across society, we just accept that a minimum basic level of education must be provided to everyone.

On reaching adulthood, that all changes. Thereis a deeply entrenched line of thought that says we have too many graduates and too much higher education. This is often portrayed asa relatively fresh insight, for example by people who think Tony Blair was wrong to set a 50 per cent higher education participation target for younger people. But the concern that too many people reach higher education is an old one. Even before the really big growth in the number of students occurred on the back of the 1963 Robbins report, Kingsley Amis was whingeing that ‘more will mean worse’.

Yet more has not meant worse. On average, graduates earn more – much more – than similar people who did not go to university. This is true even after taking off their student loan repayments and their higher income tax payments. The wage boost is especially big for women. This is not because female graduates earn more than male graduates. They do not. It is because female non-graduates typically earn so little, meaning the gap between the wages of female non-graduates and the wages of female graduates is huge. Graduates are also less likely to be unemployed, even in the depth of a recession.

Ah, some clever people say, but this is only what has happened in the past. As any good financial adviser will tell you, the past may be a poor guide to the future. After all, the people at the top of today’s labour market went to university many years ago. Perhaps things have deteriorated since? There is as yet no robust evidence to support this theory, but could it be that today we really are educating too many people to a higher level?

If we really believed this and acted upon it, our key competitor nations would rub their hands with glee as they would think we were giving up. They already, in many cases, educate a far greater proportion of people to higher levels than we do. They regard it as implausible that we will need fewer transferable, creative and empathetic skills in the future, when artificial intelligence and robotics replace more lower and middle-level jobs. Moreover, if Brexit leads to less migration, then it will be doubly important to offer extra educational and training options to people already in the UK.

We also need to remember that higher education is not just about money. Teachers in HMC schools know better than most that educational qualifications do not guarantee great wealth. They can, sometimes, provide personal fulfilment through the acquisition of an interesting job ora better life. Like many people, I met my wife and the mother of my two children whilst studying for my degree. That may sound like a personal anecdote rather than hard evidence of a general trend but, in fact, it is such a common practice that sociologists have given it a term of its own: assortative mating.

Just as the financial benefits of having a degree accrue to both the individual through higher wages and the Government through higher taxes, so the non-financial benefits accrue to the individual and wider society as well. Not only do graduates smoke less, drink less and live longer, they are also less likely to go to prison and more likely to be active in civic society, such as in community groups.

People often scoff at such claims, but there is a robust evidence base for each one. When I worked in Government and helped to set tuition fees at £9,000, we were often accused of being overly obsessed by the finances. We were not. The funding system was a means to an end because it enabled the relaxation of student number controls, meaning more people can enjoy the non-financial as well as the financial benefits of obtaining a degree.

None of this means higher education works out for each student all of the time. It is not right for everyone. Our annual Student Academic Experience Survey, undertaken in conjunction with Advance HE, shows that – on many measures – around one-third of full-time young undergraduate students are somewhat discontented. For example, around a third of them think they are getting poor or very poor value for money and a similar proportion say they would not have chosen the same course at the same university if they could have their time again – although only five per cent say they would not enter higher education if they were choosing again. Levels of wellbeing among students are also worryingly low.

This helps explain why, when I do speeches in schools, I am nearly always asked, ‘But surely degree-level apprenticeships are better than university?’ It is true that higher-level apprenticeships can provide the route to a degree without taking on lots of debt and with the guarantee of a job at the end. It is great when people find apprenticeships that feel right for them. But degree-level apprenticeships are still comparatively rare and they are not an alternative to higher education: they are one form of higher education. The clue is in the name: ‘degree’.

I am a strong supporter of student choice, and I hope degree-level apprenticeships are a great success. But the jury is out. This is because apprenticeships are, by definition, linked toa specific role, whereas much higher education is designed to provide transferable skills appropriate for a modern labour market. So it is likely that degree apprenticeships will provide a high starting salary but less salary progression later in life.

My preference is not to spend too long asking whether university is worth it as the benefits are so clear. Instead, as a country, we should spend our efforts trying to offer more higher-level skills across the board. Currently, only around 40 per cent of recent school leavers go on to higher education. For the other 60 per cent, we need more foundation courses, more apprenticeships, more two-year degrees, more four-yeardegrees, more part-time courses and more second-chance options for those who haveleft school far behind, as well as more regularthree-year degrees. In other words, we need more education not less.