Universities: Trivial subjects and too many students

By C Morris

With reference to Simon Clare’s article published on 15th February, I would like to put a different ‘beyond the headlines’ perspective.

In the UK University tuition used to be provided free for people who achieved exceptional grades at A-levels (or equivalent).  People who took up places had the opportunity of improving their education and their earning power but, generally speaking, they had to forego the chance of earning an income during the time they are at university. Better education benefited those individuals and the country.

Over time an erosion of education standards has occurred – subjects may be studied in greater depth but also much less breadth.  Increasingly, students have been taught to pass exams rather than learn the breadth of a subject, and rather than learning to learn!

Trivial subjects have been added to the school curriculum.  Former colleges have become so called ‘universities’.  Three ‘D’ grade A-levels in Trivia have become enough to secure a place at a ‘university’; in order to pursue a degree in Trivia!

Now there are so many people going to university that, following the trend of ‘O’ and ‘A’levels, degrees have become devalued – such that employers discount a 2:2 and look for people who attended a top university and have gained a 1st or, preferably, a Masters (which usually requires a further year or two at university).

Instead of maintaining free university education for talented students, and cutting out its support for trivial subjects, the Government decided to introduce fees, at circa £3,250 per year for everyone (in England!).  Students could get a loan which had to be paid back at the rate of 9% on any earnings above £15,000 a year.

The Government has now allowed fees of circa £9,000 per year and increased the loan repayment threshold to £21,000. Anyone earning less than the threshold will not have to make any repayments, and after 30 years any outstanding loan will be written off.

There can be other important benefits but if it is likely earnings are less than the loan repayment threshold then one questions the financial benefit of incurring all the costs of going to university, and forgoing years of earning potential as well.

If earnings are high enough to require loan repayments one has to consider whether there will be sufficient earnings remaining to live on, to pay for accommodation, to pay into a pension / retirement scheme, to bring up a family, etcetera?

The pertinent questions a prospective university student has to consider are:

  • Should I invest three (or more) years in study and at a cost of £9,000+ per year, plus a accommodation and expenses, and lose the potential of three (or more) years of income?
  • Will the subjects I want to pursue and the grades I am likely to achieve be valued by prospective employers?
  • Will the university which is likely to accept me be regarded as creditable by prospective employers?
  • Should I instead try to get on the employment ladder now and progress through (usually free and focused) on-the-job training and work experience?
  • What are my life goals and which route is more likely to help me achieve them.

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