Value of university education in Western world
‘Education for all’ is a fairly new concept; a modern phenomenon or even a trend, that is widely supported. But let’s look at the value of university education in Europe, specifically in the United Kingdom.
In the United Kingdom, everyone has access to higher education through tuition and maintenance loans. These loans provide students (especially the ones from poorer backgrounds) with an opportunity to obtain a university education and invest in their future. However, it is currently estimated that the current total student debt in the U.K. is over a £100bn, with individual students, from the poorest families, graduating with debts of up to £57,000. Well, these figures do not include interest that is gradually accumulating every year and will further increase the amount owed. This figure is partially a result of recent drastic changes in the higher education funding sector. In 2012, tuition fees tripled from £3,000 to £9,000 per annum. In 2016, maintenance grants have been replaced by maintenance loans, a ‘disgraceful’ move that has drawn a lot of criticism. Still, the total debt will rise even more. As of 2017/2018 academic year, Postgraduate loans were introduced to make Masters degrees more accessible. Furthermore, from 2018/2019 PhD loans of up to £25,000 will also be available. These loans serve as an important development for individual students and make the education more accessible. But is this funding system the right one and does it work?
The question of student debt is a complicated one. It is widely accepted that the majority of graduates will never pay off their whole student loan debt before it is wiped off 30 years after their graduation, but this fact is not as good as it sounds. It is also a bit of a paradox – students take out loans, worry about them, but never really (have to) pay them back? In 2012 tuition fees rose from approximately £3,000 per year to £9,000 per year and, despite many fears, it did not obstruct access to education, because loans are provided. Education is still accessible to pretty much everyone and, since the loans will never be (fully) repaid – free? However, the debt is rising and will rise even more, so what will happen with it? Last year, U.K. government proceeded with its plans of selling student loans to private investors, a controversial move that was met with caution and apprehension. There is a skepticism about what it means to bring the private companies into the higher education sector and whether it represents a fair deal for students and taxpayers. The move is seen as a cowardly way for the British government to get out of the original deal they made with students, but it is also a wider indication of why the current student fee system doesn’t work. This deal also raises worries about how it will impact repayment of the loans and will the loans, in fact, be wiped off 30 years after the graduation? The British Government, in response to public confusion and uncertainty has temporarily frozen undergraduate tuition fees at £9,250 a year and announced a review of the student funding. Additionally, the initial loan repayment threshold has also been raised from £21,000 to £25,000, a move that was widely welcomed by the students.
There are further question about Brexit’s impact on U.K. higher education sector. Will EU and international students still be welcome? Will they be able to apply for tuition fee loans? Last year, it was reported that U.K. university applications fell by 4%, which marked “the first decline since fees were last increased in England, in 2012”. Statistics also revealed that “the number of EU students planning to study in the UK has fallen by 5%”. This year, it was reported that “the number of people seeking places at UK universities by the main January deadline has fallen for a second consecutive year”, as a result of diminishing interest from mature students and shrinking number of applications from 19+ year olds. The number of applications keeps falling despite the increasing number of U.K.’s 18 year olds (school-leavers) applying for a place in the university and a renewed interest from international applicants. There has been a 3% increase, from last year, from EU nationals to enter the U.K. higher education sector, but it is believed that “a last-minute rush to study at British universities before Brexit closes the door may be behind this rise”.
It is common knowledge that the economic and employment landscape has changed drastically in the last few decades. A higher education degree/diploma/qualification no longer guarantees a well-paid job and a secure future. There is a growing realisation that a higher education degree is a prerequisite for even the most mundane/simple jobs. Recent research shows that jobs which once required A-level qualifications now need an undergraduate degree. Does that mean that once these qualifications are no longer enough (i.e. when the majority of people have them), will employers begin seeking postgraduate qualifications to fill even the simplest roles? This process is already evident because the British Government is discussing plans to “crackdown on the rapidly increasing proportion of top degrees being awarded by universities, amid fears that the value of higher education is being eroded“. The government will look into introducing quotas to limit the number of first-class degrees awarded.
University degree is no longer a status of prestige but a prerequisite, with work/volunteering experience, extracurricular activities and personal skills becoming valued more than the degree one studies for (well, at least in some disciplines). That is the natural progression of a modern age and it is naive to expect the academic/employment landscape not to be different of the previous generations. But we have to discuss what this means. University life is not all fun and roses and universities and government need to realise that. Worries about exams, grades, placements, future job prospects, debt, life questions and that hopeless realisation that if you don’t find a job, the likelihood of having to return home after graduation, is increasing. Mental health is an epidemic on campuses and creating a mental health league table for universities will go a long way helping to alleviate some of these worries for students.
The obsession with grades, desperate attempts to get a first (but settling for or accepting a 2:1) because most employers won’t consider anything below that. At the same time, feeling like a failure even if you are 0.01% of the 2:1 mark and see the meager 2:2 on your university record. When in all reality, it is all meaningless and does not actually define your talents and capabilities – don’t we have the same discussions about how your school degrees mean nothing, so why not do the same for university grades? Well, we can’t, because our dependence on them is exaggerated by fears and worries about our future and future employment prospects. Nearly one in 5 university students are affected with anxiety or depression with suicide at record levels among the student population.
In the U.K., each course, regardless of the discipline/department or contact hours, costs basically the same amount, in the region of £9,000 per year (depending on inflation of the current year). While it is pointless to discuss the question whether all degrees should be charged the same amount (as it would require a separate article), it is at least worth mentioning briefly. There is some discontent about why all courses are treated the same, from the financial point of view, when the returns are not the same e.g. difference in teaching hours, quality of the course, quality of facilities, the usefulness of the degree in the job market etc. Another problem with the current system is that an Oxbridge degree costs the same as a degree from a university at the bottom of university league tables. One degree is a bargain, another an extortion. Depending on the name of university on your diploma, your degree field and, to a slighter extent, your grade, you are slotted into rigid categories that will determine your employment future.
Truth of the matter is, there is an increased number of (pointless) university degrees that offer nothing to the students or the society. On one hand, it can be viewed as carelessness on the part of the government or universities that provide these courses, which students pay £9,000 per year, knowing full well that there are not enough employment opportunities and graduates, who complete some of these degrees, are not at all employable. Of course, on the other hand is the argument that a wide range of disciplines and degrees allows students to pick their field and follow their dreams, study a course that might not result in a well-paid job but allows a person to study a subject that he/she enjoys. But at the end of the day, everyone needs an income to survive, everyone has to pay rent, bills and buy food. This is exactly where the “My degree is next to worthless” argument comes in. The wider argument is that a degree is a necessity. More so, a good degree from a good university is an expectation in a competitive job market.
With most, if not all, universities charging the same amount of money for the same courses (whose content can be pretty much the same), we are left with the current university competition landscape. That is the relentless PR / bragging rights competition, highlighting (sometimes) meaningless awards to attract the potential students and showcase why this university is the best university in the whole wide world. This self-promotions has become so aggressive (and it has to be expensive) it feels like it is a bit overdone. This notion of branding (or self-branding) is a bit ridiculous, especially if one is constantly parading about own achievements, which sometimes are not even serious or official. Of course, marketing is an important part of an organisation for its growth and development. How else would universities attract the best candidates when all courses (who are for the most part similar) are charged the same amount of money? But perhaps, the PR marketing has become too aggressive and too costly? The problem with it is, it does not add (substantially) to the quality of teaching and may even take away the resources from it. This current model assumes that ‘competition’ will help to achieve excellence, attract all the best students, and climb higher in the university league tables. This becomes a never ending cycle, a mission to create a brand image, keep climbing up the university tables, because that is the only thing that matters. The position on the league table and university ranking lists is the most important thing. The main worry of this mindset is this: we have to be careful not to confuse those universities with the best PR teams/departments with those universities that actually provide the highest-quality education.
We also have to keep in mind that PR campaigns may not necessarily reflect the reality. Recent series of strikes by lecturers at some U.K. universities over the changes made to their USS pension scheme have highlighted the injustice and exploitation the academics face. The strikes came to an end after weeks of cancelled lecturers and ongoing debates between the University and College Union and Universities UK, stopping the plans to disrupt end-of-year exams with a series of further strikes between April and June. These strikes only further highlighted the unfair, insecure and poor employment conditions university academics face: working long hours disproportionate to their pay; low and unfair pay and unrealistic expectations and the workload they have to deal with. All of this results to a poor life-work balance and unnecessary stress. So while on one hand, we have hard-working university PR and marketing staff doing their best to promote their university; on the other hand, we have academics who are overworked, underpaid, overstressed and skeptical of these marketing ploys. It is as if executive and educational decisions are not made in the same rooms…
Universities have already turned into massive businesses, even though their primary mission has to be teaching and student development. Students are no longer students but consumers, customers, evaluated and judged on their graduate role and income range. The tuition fees, as they stand, are symbolic and unindicative of the quality of the lectures, contact hours, staff experience etc. Student loans are a significant modern development that provide everyone with access to education and have been crucial in developing a more educated culture, but the higher education funding sector has to be reviewed.
In U.K. education is accessible to pretty much everyone, but what does the university degree mean? Is it a luxury? Is it a right? Is it a necessity, a compulsion, a realisation that, even if higher education does not match your future goals and ambitions, you have to study because of the current employment market?
We have to ask ourselves if the university education is worth the debt it incurs? Yes, it is expected that most graduates will never pay back their loans – so why worry about that, let’s take all the loans we can get, but that can change. We also have to debate whether university degree provides a better deal than the alternatives; how beneficial are they? Is it better to enter the workforce right after school and rise through management levels rather than ‘waste’ 3 or 4 years studying a degree that is not beneficial or interesting? We can also claim that the reason most graduates will not pay back their loans is because their income is not high/sufficient enough.
There is also an argument that university is more about the experience of studying, friendships, personal development etc., but is it worth paying £9,000 per year for that, especially if university is not about education anymore? Combining these questions with the fact that there is a severe lack of housing / affordable housing; high rents / high living costs and low employment opportunities – we face a grim reality.
So then the question is – are university degrees worthless?
Has university education become worthless?
Aldas Krūminis holds a BSc Criminology and Social Policy degree and is currently studying for an M.A. in Creative Writing at Loughborough University, where he has been an active volunteer with student support services. He writes everything from fiction to non-fiction and has dedicated his future to the art of writing.