Universities are failing us: they’re expensive, ill-equipped and entrench ‘left-behind’ towns in the UK

A record number of students have applied for university, with just over 300,000 submitting applications, according to UCAS. This represents 44 per cent of the entire year group, up 10 per cent on what was then a new record total in 2020. 

One of the main drivers has been the uncertainty the pandemic has created around job prospects. To many, it will feel safer to postpone the day of having to enter the labour market until the outlook is better.

It is nevertheless surprising. The appalling way in which many universities have treated students over the past year or so has been widely publicised.  

Most courses are still being offered online, and yet students are still required to cough up full teaching fees. Many have been forced to pay for accommodation they’ve barely spent any time in.

But there is a more fundamental reason which ought to defer university applicants: there are not enough jobs in the economy which, in terms of skill requirements, need graduates. 

The so-called graduate premium – the idea that getting a degree boosts lifetime earnings – still applies to around half of university students to varying extents. But to the less able other half, it does not. They will not earn more and will be saddled with debt which they cannot repay.

We have a situation in which the demand for a product – a university degree – is considerably higher than it would be if the choice were being made rationally.

This is a classic situation in which the government ought to intervene in the workings of the market to bring about a more desirable outcome.

A straightforward way would be to insist on minimal, but reasonably demanding, grades at GCSE in both maths and English in order to qualify for a loan.  

Setting this at, say, what is now grade 5 – B/C borderline under the old system – would be desirable.  

But no doubt any measure to curtail what many have come to see as a “right” to higher education would create outrage.

The government would do better to try and channel the demand for places so that the outcome for society is better.

There is a wealth of evidence showing that graduates are more likely to stay and work in the town or city where they went to study. This has created and worsened the problem of “left behind” towns. The brighter young people who go off to university usually do not come back. 

This can tackle two twin-heads of Boris Johnson’s agenda: levelling parts of Britain historically forgotten and creating an economy based on the skills we need, rather than those employers looked for five years ago. 

There should be more incentives to go to a local university. For example, fees could be mandated to be distinctly lower for non-residential students.

Universities would moan vociferously, because their expensively built residential accommodation would be partly empty, but that is just a risk of being a business, which most universities see themselves as these days. They have always milked the system for what it’s worth, it should come as little surprise there would be repercussions.

The current situation is clearly unsustainable. One way or another, the university sector is one which is crying out for radical reform.

Paul Ormerod
As published in City AM Wednesday 21st July 2021
Image: Sakeeb Sabakka via Flickr

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