REPORTS this week place university vice-chancellors in contention for the accolade of being the highest-paid group of tirelessly self-serving and dispensable people in the country.
They have taken a break from decolonising their courses, searching out unsavoury links to the slave trade and removing the statues of long-dead benefactors, to take up arms against government proposals to limit the granting of student loans to young people with certain minimum grades at GCSE and A-Level.
The Student Loans Company claims on its website to administer a loan book which it values at £177.9billion. The true value has not been tested and the extent to which this colossal amount would need to be discounted if the company wanted to sell down its portfolio in the commercial market is anybody’s guess.
The uncertainty stems from the simple fact that the ‘loans’ are not loans at all since they become repayable only when the borrower’s salary passes a given threshold which presupposes that the borrower hasn’t decamped to another jurisdiction.
For those who do not reach the threshold within 30 years, the loan is written off so you, gentle taxpayer, are in hock as effective guarantor. Perhaps it makes sense for loans to be restricted only to those susceptible of paying them back?
The current proposal is that students become eligible to be considered for a loan only if they have achieved two A-levels at E grade plus passes in GCSE maths and English.
What can one say about the failure to meet such a modest level of attainment? The two possibilities are that however hard the young person worked and however well taught this was the best he could have hoped to achieve, or that the exam results reflect the abysmal quality of his primary and secondary education.
Three (or more) costly years at university will not make an academic out of someone whose talents don’t tend that way, nor will it compensate for a sub-standard education. It is altogether more likely to promote a sense of grievance in someone gaining a third-rate qualification from a fourth-rate institution only to discover that employers are unimpressed by what he can offer them beyond a sense of entitlement.
Vice-chancellors do not see it this way. Universities UK, which represents 140 of them (average remuneration in 2019/20 £269,000), warns that this policy is directly at odds with government aims of levelling up which arguably demonstrates that levelling up is a rotten idea, as though qualifying for free school meals should guarantee a university place. A minimum entry bar could prevent disadvantaged students from achieving their potential, they argue, but the academic potential of an eighteen-year-old with less than two Es plus maths and English GCSE is zero.
A cynic might think that 166 providers of higher education registered with the Office for Students is a crazy number: few of us could name a quarter of them.
Perhaps the most galling thing is that so many school-leavers fall into the trap of feeling that ‘uni’ is a rite of passage and that the acquisition of examination certificates rather than an education is the objective. Perhaps vice-chancellors should be required to publish in their prospectuses the career outcomes for graduates from the courses they offer, and perhaps this would encourage youngsters or their parents to make informed choices and consider giving ‘uni’ a miss.
From a taxpayer’s perspective, wouldn’t we be better off shutting down the resin-ivory towers, pensioning off the vice-chancellors and giving school leavers a £10,000 grant to set up their own businesses? How much better for them to be thinking for themselves and making their way in the world rather than absorbing uncritically the monoculture of the academic left and the vigorous half-baked orthodoxy that brooks no dissent.