Comment Blog 12 June, 2024

Taking the mickey?

Giorgia Vittorino
Research Assistant

The Conservative’s pledge to scrap one in eight university courses — so-called “rip off” degrees — was bound to be controversial, but there is clearly room for improvement across the higher education sector.

Students in England are leaving university with average debts of around £43,000. This makes it increasingly important that university courses deliver value for money through future earnings projection — something which many of these courses fail to deliver. And while we should caution in viewing higher education solely through the lens of cost-benefit analysis, saddling students with debts despite poor projected earnings is an unfair penalty to both students who will not see returns materialise and taxpayers who are subsidising their studies.

This is connected to a wider problem: the chronic undervaluing of vocational and technical education and the related persistence of socio-economic inequality in England’s higher education system.

As Reform has reported, elite universities have a disproportionate number of students from wealthier socioeconomic backgrounds compared to lower ranked institutions, who’s students on average will not receive the same university premium in future earnings. It is likely that poorly-run courses at lower ranking universities with low earnings potential, more likely to be attended in higher numbers by students from disadvantaged backgrounds, will be the target of the course crack down.

In many respects, it is right to crack down on courses that on average do little to support social mobility, or leave students worse-off. As Reform have argued, the main way to drive social mobility is to hold universities accountable for widening access to top courses — not allowing students to take out loans for courses with limited material benefit.

Additionally, the proposed measures for cracking down on courses — for example, by targeting courses with high dropout rates — are correct in emphasising the need to improve course quality. We should be looking more broadly at how to improve value for money of degrees to ensure that students, as consumers, receive a fair deal.

Yet scrapping courses is just one side of the policy coin, and in pledging to invest in 100,000 new apprenticeship places, the Conservatives are right to recognise the importance of supplementing course reductions with an expansion of vocational and technical options. The preference for higher education in England has left the vocational and technical education sectors undervalued and underfunded, and the Party manifestos released this week make clear that all main political parties are eager to address this.

There are however existing problems with the Apprenticeship Levy that will need to be addressed before the bonfire of the ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees gets lit. Most employer funding is being spent on training for over 25s, a significant amount of the funds end up being unspent, and significant loopholes lead to funds being used for existing in-work training.

Thus, a new approach – with social mobility at its heart – will be needed.