Overselling Higher Education, British Style

Blair wants to increase college enrollment by 50 percent

By Tom Burkard


October 19, 2006

Prime Minister Tony Blair clearly believes in education. When he took office in 1997, he announced his priorities: Education, education, education.

He believes in education so strongly that he has set a target of inducing 50 percent of our school leavers (graduates) to go to university. There is, of course, something a bit fishy about this: why not 48 percent, or 61 percent? If there was any rational basis for deciding on this figure, we have not been told.

The trouble is that the Blair government—which has almost doubled public spending since he took office—cannot possibly afford to pay for all this. Until recently, students were entitled to free tuition, and grants to pay for their living expenses. In terms of public spending, this was affordable when only 7 percent of our school leavers went on to university.

Unfortunately, meritocracy went out ages ago, and it was replaced by levelling egalitarianism—combined with ruthless empire-building in higher education. Now almost anyone who can write his name can find some university desperate enough to offer him a place. But there's a catch: the only way this expansion could be funded was to abolish grants and introduce a tuition fee of about $5,000 per year. Students from poor families may get some or even all of this waived, but they still have to live, which isn't cheap, considering the huge tax rises under Blair. The subsidised loans available may be cheap, but still have to be paid back—with interest.

This year, the percentage of school leavers opting for a mountain of debt has shrunk to 41 percent, down 2 percent from last year. And this should not surprise us: even allowing for the parlous state of 5-18 schooling in Britain, many of our young are still capable of rational thought. In the first instance, only 75 percent of those who embark on a degree course actually earn a degree. Of those who do, only two-thirds find employment which requires a degree. So over half of those who start off in university find themselves with a pile of debt, yet they are earning no more than their peers who have been drawing wages (and probably getting raises) since they left school.

On top of that, a lot of jobs that require degrees don't pay any more than non-graduate occupations. For instance, men who go into teaching earn less than many men who leave school at 18. Virtually the only graduate jobs which show a clear financial advantage in lifetime earnings are those in occupations such as medicine and law, where entry is artificially restricted. Those who claim otherwise are usually ignoring the 11% of the British workforce who are self-employed—people who enjoy above-average earnings despite having fewer academic awards.

Furthermore, it is fair to ask why so many jobs do require a degree, even though the course studied may have little or no relevance to the job. We all know the answer, even though few dare commit it to print: those who have been to a good university will have met the right people, and learned how to 'network'.

Although nearly everyone from Tony Blair on down believes it, the myth that our modern knowledge economy demands a highly-educated workforce is flatly contradicted by the job market. Only 25 percent of our Information Technology grads find UK jobs in their field, and 11 percent of them are unemployed six months after graduating. Graduates with science degrees earn no more than teachers—indeed, a fairly high percentage of them are teachers.

In fact, the greatest shortages are at the other end of the labor market. In Britain, as in the US, huge numbers of immigrants (legal or otherwise) are doing most of our menial jobs. Those who decry the social changes wrought by this influx would do well to consider that it is an inevitable consequence of an over-educated workforce. The corridors of our high schools are plastered with messages exhorting pupils to "aim high", and not to settle for a "dead-end job"—and it’s easy to guess which interests print those posters.

The wheels are starting to come off the higher-education juggernaut in Britain. Our school leavers are not the only ones to smell a rat in the empire-building propaganda disseminated by our vice-chancellors and politicians. The business editor of the London Daily Telegraph, Jeff Randall, put it this way:

"...instead of learning useful trades, such as plumbing and carpentry, many of Britain's less academically inclined youth are being lured on to the rocks of unemployment by the siren call of dumbed-down universities and their crackpot degrees."
Sadly, many of our school leavers are so woefully lacking in basic skills that they can't even train for work in the construction industry. Many school leavers have no idea how to calculate the area of rectangles, let alone more complex shapes. Simple and vital tasks such as calculating the amount of concrete needed to pour a garage floor are far beyond them. Many of them cannot read well enough to understand blueprints. Still less can they write a coherent note, never mind a quote for a prospective customer.

The rush to expand higher education is rapidly destroying British universities, which used to be among the world's best. I attended the University of Michigan in the 1960s without ever being inspired enough to complete a degree. But between 1989 and 1993, I studied English History at the University of East Anglia, a decent but hardly prestigious 'new' university where all the buildings are unadorned concrete block. I was fortunate to study in the last class before the American 'modular' system was introduced. For 6 hours each week, I attended seminars (averaging 15 students) led by some of the best scholars in the field. It changed the way I look at life, and gave me an understanding of what it means to be an educated citizen.

Now all that is gone. In the name of egalitarianism, everyone attends large, anonymous lectures, and seminars are led by ill-paid assistants -- rather like it was at the University of Michigan in the 1960s. Interestingly, East Anglia has built huge amounts of student housing, but virtually no new classrooms or laboratories. They have, however, doubled the size of the library by adding hundreds of new computer terminals where students can cut and paste assignments at their leisure.

Tom Burkard is the Director of The Promethean Trust. He is one of the pioneers of the British synthetic phonics movement and his “Sound Foundations” reading and spelling programs enable non-specialists to teach dyslexic children to read and spell. For more information, visit


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