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17/07/2023. London, United Kingdom. The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits Mulberry School for Girls in east London where he met students and staff and was shown examples of the STEM work they do. 10 Downing Street. Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street
Is university education still worth it?

Is university education still worth it?

17/07/2023. London, United Kingdom. The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits Mulberry School for Girls in east London where he met students and staff and was shown examples of the STEM work they do. 10 Downing Street. Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

Long stories short

  • The Australian state of Victoria cancelled its plans to host the 2026 Commonwealth Games over costs.
  • Joe Biden invited Israel’s Netanyahu to the White House in a bid to repair relations.
  • A first generation iPhone sold at auction for $190,000 – 300 times its original price.

Thought control

On Monday Rishi Sunak promised to tackle “rip off” UK university degrees. In practice, this means asking the university regulator in England to cap student numbers for university courses producing “poor” outcomes for students. 

So what? The announcement smacks of government spin. The Office for Students (OfS) already has powers to cap recruitment and has done so since 2017. But there is a need to talk about university funding and whether too many students are being sold, as Sunak argues, a “false dream”. 

By the numbers: 

2.8 million – the number of students studying in the UK across 30,000 courses. 

37.5 per cent – of UK 18 year-olds enrolled in higher education in 2022, 12 per cent more than in 2006. 

£130,000 – increase in overall average career earnings for a man with a degree, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (it’s £100,000 for a woman).

11,000 – students registered at 62 universities and colleges which did not meet the 60 per cent OfS threshold for “positive outcomes”.

So is university worth it…

… for students? Around 80 per cent of students are likely to gain financially from attending university, says the IFS, if you measure a degree’s worth based on cash return. But the benefit can vary:

  • One in five students – around 70,000 a year – would be better off financially if they didn’t go to university. 
  • Men studying creative arts can expect negative financial average lifetime returns, while men who study medicine or economics can expect to gain £500,000. 
  • For women, there is almost zero financial benefit to studying creative arts or languages. 

This doesn’t account for qualifications in sectors like nursing or education, where the financial benefit may be low because of government-set wages but the positive return from entering employment quickly is high.  

University also helps students’ social mobility – which is why Sunak’s announcement, which could disproportionately impact disadvantaged students and universities enrolling deprived students, was criticised as by former education secretary Justine Greening as “anti-levelling up in action”. 

… for universities? When tuition fees were raised by Labour and Conservative governments they were pitched as a way to boost university budgets while opening doors to lower-income groups. 

Sam Freedman, who worked as a senior adviser for the Department of Education, agreed with the fee increases at the time. But writing on his Substack earlier this month, he admitted that he wrongly dismissed two features of tuition fee rises:

  1. The impact of loan repayments on 25-34 year-olds disposable income as housing and childcare costs also rise. 
  2. The destabilising, rather than innovating, effect of fees on a sector that has now come to rely on international students or lower entry grades to sustain itself financially. 

That instability means some universities are now in serious financial trouble as inflation cuts into the real value of fees. Universities face a £2,500 shortfall on every home undergraduate student this academic year, says the FT, projected to grow to £4,000 by 2025. But increasing tuition fees further is an expensive hot potato that no political party wants to touch. 

Tipping point. Many students graduating this year were locked down in their halls of residence through the pandemic and emerged to face university staff strike action and a marking boycott which has delayed their final results.

Thousands are crossing the stage at graduation to receive a blank piece of paper instead of a degree – an FOI request to the University of Edinburgh revealed that 28 per cent of its final-year undergraduates this year (1,720 students) have received an unclassified or deferred degree because of the boycott.

Sharon Martin, a mum of three whose second child had her final grade affected by strikes at the University of Manchester, told Tortoise the boycott was “the cherry on the cake of shitness”. She is now reluctant to recommend university to her 13 year-old.

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Photograph Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

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