Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science, and his book A University Education is published by Oxford University Press.
The Prime Minister yesterday launched a swingeing attack on low value degrees, with limits on the numbers of students doing them. There are over a million undergraduate students in English universities and some of their courses are of poor quality, so it is right to tackle the problem. Indeed, the evidence he cites for poor returns on these courses comes from data on earnings from HMRC which, as Universities Minister, I fought long and hard to make available for researchers and students.
We needed this data so prospective students could make better-informed choices – and we could track the financial sustainability of our model in which graduates pay back for the cost of their higher education. The aim should be that the typical graduate pays back in full over their working life – at a rate of 9 per cent of earnings above a high threshold. Since most graduates earn more than non-graduates, it is fair and progressive. And as it removes most of the costs of higher education from taxpayers it meant that we could get rid of overall caps on student numbers. Now more young people can fulfil their aspiration to get to university.
That basic model has been implemented over 20 years by all three main English political parties. It boosts student choice and saves public spending. It has ensured we have one of the West’s strongest and best-regarded university systems. The Prime Minister and Gillian Keegan are right to stress that rigorous standards are an essential part of this.
However, there are also traps here. How do you measure low value courses? The Prime Minister’s article in the Daily Telegraph praised schools which are judged outstanding on measures of teaching performance. By contrast, the measure he focuses on for university is pay and employment. But Jo Johnson, when Universities Minister, developed measures of teaching excellence, and often this matters at least as much for students as work outcomes: is it to have no weight? And then there are other outcomes altogether– it looks as if those three years of extra education are good for your long-term health: does that count?
And if the outcomes that matter from universities are solely jobs – despite students themselves giving a much wider set of reasons for attending – we have to be sure we get the measure right. Penalising universities in parts of the country where pay is lower would be the opposite of levelling up. How much weight can we attach to the measure of a graduate job? Teaching was not a graduate job until the 1970s – were graduates who went into teaching before then the victims of failed courses?
Higher education is the only stage of education in which students from low-income backgrounds catch up on their peers but, sadly, they then do less well in the jobs market than graduates from more advantaged backgrounds with the same level of degree – is this a reason for penalising the universities which take more disadvantaged students?
And graduates are on a longer, steadier trajectory of income growth compared with apprentices who tend to reach a plateau sooner. So measures after 15 months are very short-term, and don’t capture the shape of a graduate career. A lot will depend on the skill and judgement with which the OfS allows for these kind of factors.
Lurking behind this debate is the assumption that there is only one sort of good university – our prestigious research-intensive ones. We are very fortunate to have these great universities. But we should not dismiss other ways of being a good and effective university. What about universities such as Sunderland or Coventry which train students in automotive engineering, with strong links to their local car industry? They are very useful even if their graduates don’t earn as much as law graduates from our most prestigious universities.
This leads us to the biggest danger of all – that the Conservative Party thinks it can fight a cultural war on the side of apprenticeships which are good against universities which are bad. I support apprenticeships – my late father ran the apprenticeship programme for a Birmingham engineering company, and I am currently co-chairing a review for Engineering UK on how we boost engineering apprenticeships. (Indeed, one of our early findings was the problems caused for employers by some of the bureaucracy around apprenticeships, and it is great that the Prime Minister is tackling this as part of his package.) But many universities do vocational courses accredited by employers and professional bodies.
We now face a surge in the number of apprentices and university students because of the rise in the birth-rate at the beginning of the century. So there is scope for both to grow. The good news is that this surge in the numbers of young adults is a fantastic opportunity to offer them more and better opportunities both in university and apprenticeships.
The Prime Minister and Gillian Keegan are right that we have to offer a fair deal to the young people going into higher education. That means focusing on the quality of their teaching experience while they are at university as well their outcomes afterwards.
But it also means ensuring that their higher education is properly funded. The cuts in the real value of their fees – the money which funds their education – cannot carry on any further. There is a quid pro quo for tough measures of performance which is to boost fees in line with inflation: universities should as a minimum have the same level of funding protection as other stages of education. The mantra should be tough on quality but also fair on funding.