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Chris McGovern: Mickey Mouse ‘degrees’ clog up our education system


Is going to ‘Uni’ all it is cracked up to be? The growing burden of student debt was supposed to be more than offset by a so-called graduate employment premium of £100,000 in lifetime earnings. Now, it turns out that this extra-earnings claim may be a bit of a ‘con’. According to the Intergenerational Foundation, it only really applies to some specialist degrees such as medicine, dentistry and technology and to graduates of a few elite universities.

Many young people, it seems, are being duped. At best, they are receiving poor advice from their schools. At worst, they are being deliberately misled by the selling techniques of self-interested universities. The Intergenerational Foundation told The Sunday Times that “any politician or policymaker who dangles the carrot of an average lifetime earnings premium should be challenged for gross mis-selling. The current system is fuelling a self-perpetuating debt-generating machine that short changes young people.”

An educational racket has emerged that needs to be stopped. It serves the interests of the producer, the universities, but not always of the consumer, young people. Recruitment of undergraduates should not be a job creation and preservation scheme for universities with long-term debt the price to be paid by the supposed ‘beneficiaries’.

Universities are inclined to boast of high employment rates for their graduates but below the headline figures matters look far from rosy.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency published its ‘”Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education 2014/15” a couple of weeks ago. It showed that 44.4 per cent were employed “on a permanent or open-ended contract” with a further 18.8 per cent on fixed-term contracts.

This is far from the promised land of opportunity and employment that a university degree is supposed to offer. It also explains why a survey found that around half of recent graduates wished they had pursued “something more vocational”. Several surveys have indicated that close to half of graduates end up under-employed, doing jobs that do not require a degree.

A couple of years ago I addressed a conference of university admissions tutors. I suggested that if they wished to find out the type of employment destination for around half of their graduates they should pop over the road to the outlet of a coffee bar chain. I was greeted with stony silence from the audience, including my fellow speaker, Les Ebdon, the Government’s higher education access Tsar. Afterwards, however, I was taken aside by several admissions officers who thanked me for telling the truth.

Most school leavers are poorly served by watered-down academic university courses that burden them with life long debt and under-employment. Their own interests, and the interests of the country, would be far better served if academic courses were reserved for the academic. Children whose abilities are not academic should be pursing a vocational pathway from the age of 13 or 14. This is becoming the norm in successful economies around the world.

If our higher education system is to meet the needs of all young people it needs to hugely expand the provision of vocational education and training. Three quarters of universities should focus on ‘applied’ teaching and learning. If they can offer ‘gold standard’ applied courses with enhanced employment prospects the snobbery attached to the ‘academic’ will disappear as it has in the educational super stars of the Asia Pacific.

For once there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. The Government has initiated ‘degree apprenticeships’ which combine university study with a work placement. The Skills Funding Agency estimates that 1500 to 2000 youngsters, across 40 universities, will commence such course this autumn. The employer will pay tuition fees in full.

This is a drop in the ocean, of course, but it is, at least, a recognition that we cannot go on herding youngsters on to worthless degree courses to keep university lecturers in a job. ‘Degree apprenticeships’ may be a misnomer as, indeed, is the description ‘university’ when applied to many institutions that carry that name, but recognition of the importance of high quality apprenticeships, free of the burden of debt, is a move in the right direction.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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