Donelan is ensuring universities deliver value for money and better life chances. What could be more Conservative?

10 Jun

One does not like to assume too much about the cultural habits of ConservativeHome’s diverse and knowledgeable readership. But I don’t think I’m going out on too much of a limb if I suggest that the majority of those reading this haven’t been keeping too close an eye on the latest series of Love Island. For those unaware, the 8th series of the popular reality game show began this week, with 10 hot and hunky twentysomethings beginning their two-month long quest for love, fame, and £50,000.

As a twentysomething myself with far too much time on his hands, I must admit to being quite a fan of this televisual phenomenon, although Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation it is not. Nevertheless, one of the contestants came to mind when I saw The Telegraph‘s story this morning about universities minister Michelle Donelan’s plan to cap places on degrees with high dropout rates and poor graduate employability. One of the contestants, named Liam, is 22, and has just completed a Masters in Strength and Conditioning.

According to the website of Northumbria University, as Masters in Strength and Conditioning is designed to give students “the knowledge and practical competencies to train elite athletes or pursue your own research studies at PhD level”. All very worthy. But I’m also 22, a year out of university, and a snob. I didn’t spend three years hunched over the works of Maurice Cowling and Hugh Trevor-Roper in Christ Church’s library for people to go around considering Strength and Conditioning a degree.

Yet Liam will have the last laugh. Obviously, he gets to spend up to two months of his life snogging in the Spanish sun with a bunch of beautiful babes in bikinis. But, as this article highlights, the process of getting onto Love Island is both much more competitive than getting into Oxbridge, and far more financially remunerative. The average Oxbridge graduate earns about £32,000 after leaving university. The average Love Island contestant makes £300,000 – or even up to a million.

Even the most patient reader may be wondering what all this has to do with university policy. My point is that the vast majority of university students will not have an experience like Liam’s or mine. They will go to one of the 160-odd universities that are not Oxbridge, and they will not finish their studies and immediately go on one of the country’s most popular television programmes. From their three years, they will hope to enjoy themselves, do a subject of interest, and leave into a well-paid graduate job.

For far too many students, this is not currently the case. New Labour’s target of 50 percent of school-leavers at university was so bone-headed that Blair’s son is now making millions out of encouraging eighteen-year-olds to do apprenticeships instead. Currently, at 25 universities and other providers, less than half of students who begin a degree can expect to graduate and find professional employment or further study within 15 months. So much for a degree being a pathway to success.

The reasons why are obvious. As universities rapidly expand, degree quality suffers in the interests of getting as many students to attend as possible. Ever-increasing numbers of students, even at the worst-performing universities, means the pressure is off at many institutions when it comes to providing the best quality student experience. For example, whilst many universities have a drop-out rate of less than 15 percent for computing courses, there are eight with drop-out rates of over 40 percent.

All this should worry Conservatives. It is a huge waste of human potential if, when employers are crying out for more school-leavers who aren’t graduates, we are having young people waste years of their life wracking up debt for degrees that aren’t leaving them better off. That’s if they are not dropping out halfway through due to the poor quality of the course. It breaks the fundamental expectation that a degree is a channel of social mobility.

Fortunately, Donelan is on the case. As Minister of State for Universities since February 2020, she has made it her mission to once more put quality once more ahead of quality in our universities. To this end, the Government launched the Augar Review of Post-18 Education and Funding. Andrew Gimson recently touched upon plans to fine universities, and then strip them of their student finance – essentially, closing them down – if they do not improve.

But the Government also looks likely to introduce a cap on places on those courses which have high dropout rates and poor graduate employment prospects. It is a cliché to complain about “Mickey Mouse” degrees in surfing, sociology, or sexuality, but there is truth to the complaint. For most, going to university is not an opportunity to arse around in a punt and do Ancient Greek for four years. It is a vital stepping to get on in life – and that means delivering value for the £9,250 it costs students a year.

That at 25 universities less than half of students finish their degrees is appalling. Donelan is therefore right to introduce some rigour into a system that has grown flabby on an ever-growing number of attendees, the higher fees brought in by foreign students, and Ponzi-style financial planning prioritising continual expansion. Her backing for minimum A-level entry requirements for courses is long overdue. If your course requires 3 As, and you have 3Cs, even the magic of clearing shouldn’t get you a place.

So at a time when the headlines are dominated by Boris Johnson’s woes, and where the wandering eyes of certain Conservative commentators are distracted by Love Island, leadership plots, and the Test match I’m certainly not typing whilst listening to, it is right to step back and remember some of the good this government is doing. It might not be building houses or curbing spending as fast as I might like. But it is doing meaningful good for many students out there, and that is something to celebrate.

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