Welcome to Universities Challenged, a column about the world of academia.
Is your Humanities degree good value for money?
If you're doing a degree in the humanities (or the softer end of the social sciences, or the creative arts) this is likely to be the number one question on all of your most boring uncles' lips. Yes, Classics might be what you want to study, but what are you going to do with it? Getting a degree in Theatre & Performance is all well and good – but how is that supposed to get you a job?
This is a question also being posed, by MPs and other people who matter in politics, to our universities. You might not have heard of Onward, but they have been hailed as "The new Conservative think-tank preparing for life after Brexit". It's fronted by Neil O'Brien, Tory MP, and Will Tanner, Theresa May's former policy adviser, who wants to shake the Tories out of their slumber as they are "sleepwalking into opposition".
Earlier this month, the think-tank published a report, "A Question of Degree", which argues, among other things, that degrees in the creative arts are not good value for money. The report received a fair bit of press coverage.
Ministers, according to Onward, should "crack down on courses that offer extremely limited value for money to students ten years after graduation", restricting the ability of courses where the average graduate earns below the student loans payment threshold to recruit new students. Courses where the average graduate earns lots of money – STEM subjects, and economics – should be favoured, alongside technical education, which has been unfairly neglected.
This isn't mere think-tank waffle – given Onward's status, the report has been seen as anticipating the upcoming Augar Review on post-18 education funding, a government review which will look at how to reform technical education and how to ensure students are getting good value for money.
On the surface, it might even seem like Onward have a point. According to their data, the majority of creative arts students earn less than £25,000 a year, ten years after graduation. The median male creative arts student, indeed, apparently earns substantially less than they would have done, had they simply never gone to university.
This isn't really good for anyone – and it's certainly no good for graduates, forced to endure a precarious existence where they can never save up, never buy a house, never hope to stop working for even a few years before they die.
It's no good for taxpayers, either, who have to pick up the slack. Of course, people who never earn above the repayment threshold never have to pay back their student loans, so technically they'll never have to pay for the education that's actively decreased their earning power. This is already a big issue: it has been reported that three-quarters of graduates will never pay off their student loans in full.
But while the report has a consistent logic, it should be obvious what's really going on here.
Onward have identified a very real problem. But then they immediately set about blaming it on what they know is a very safe right-wing bogeyman: student dossers, living it up in a provincial town for a three-year holiday, studying whatever Mickey Mouse degree they feel like at your expense. However, the report itself admits that it's not that simple.
Creative arts graduates from universities like Oxford or Bristol – "top" universities, with a high proportion of privately-educated students – have relatively good employment prospects, while 40 percent of all graduates – regardless of their degree – are on less than £25,000 a year, five years after graduation.
This suggests that the problem isn't really to do with specific students studying specific "bad" degrees, but really with the economy as a whole. Regardless of what they've studied, young people find it hard to get ahead and do anything unless they're lucky enough to be born with rich parents. The sluggish state of the post-crash economy means that most young people – as you will know from your own experience – are forced to work precarious jobs for never-quite-enough money. It's unclear to me how getting more students to study things they're not particularly interested in would help with that. That said, it makes total sense that blaming these students for their society's failings – and sanctioning the lefty academics who've trained them – would be convenient for Tory MPs.
If ministers want to make education pay for young people, they need to look beyond the higher education sector, towards the wider world – the world that they themselves have created.
That's not to say we shouldn't critically scrutinise our higher education system. But if we do, "is it good value for money?" is almost certainly the wrong question to ask. Getting an education is not something it makes much sense to look at with a view to maximising efficiency, like buying a boiler or a car – despite what politicians who propose two-year degrees might think.
The rewards that education bestows on us are not quantifiable – they are not always immediately obvious, and certainly not always direct. An education makes you a different person to the one you would have been if you hadn't received it. We need to look at the value of education not in the context of a bank balance, but of a life. If we continue to allow ourselves to be fobbed off with talk of "value for money", we will all be made poorer as a result.