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Are degrees worth it? Part 1

By Danny Harrington

When I was at [government] secondary school in the UK in the 1980s there was never any doubt that if you could get to university you did it. The benefits were plain: another three years of free education with government support for living costs; the chance to go through an experience then only taken by some 70,000* people per year; and of course the lifetime that would follow of being,  hopefully, well equipped to continue learning and enjoying a wide range of pursuits open to people who have been through a formal higher education. As such, you generally chose a course based on the subject you enjoyed and worried about what might happen afterwards sometime in the summer before your final year. Lawyers, medics and engineers were seen as slightly strange people who had thought about a career before going to university. Most of us didn’t. I chose Geography because I enjoyed it and entertained vague ideas of joining the army, or the oil industry, or town planning, or ‘something in the City” [none of which happened].

The world is a very different place today.

In the 1980s only about 30% of the population were still in school past the leaving age of 16, now it is 71%. The undergraduate population of UK students has jumped to some 330,000 per year – nearly a fivefold increase – and has been added to by a remarkable 200,000 per year from overseas. It is now the norm to have been through at least further education and not at all surprising to hold a bachelor degree. It is also now very common to have a huge debt related to going through that experience. Most maintenance grants for living costs were stripped away by the 1990s. In 1998 fees came in for tuition. Initially capped at GBP1000 per year, they were soon at GBP3000 per year and in 2012 went up to GBP9000 per year. As of 2017, they are likely to begin rising in increments with the first announcements already out of some courses costing GBP9250 per year subject to parliamentary approval. Of course overseas students already pay for their course in full and will need to find between GBP25000 and GBP50000 per year for all their costs [dependent on institution and course type].

It is this new financial burden that has led many to question the value of taking a degree. I would argue that the huge cost is also distorting the way today’s young approach the whole question of what university is about and what its purpose is. And let’s not forget that it makes universities behave differently as well as they become more like competing businesses looking for customers in a limited market.

I’ll address each of these effects in the coming weeks.

*All data in this article series is from either the House of Commons Library, open to public scrutiny, compiled from a number of government education statistical reports, or from the Higher Education Statistics Agency [HESA] in particular.

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