We do not like to assume too much about the cultural habits of CuratorHomeits diverse and knowledgeable readership. But I don’t think I’m going too far if I suggest that the majority of those reading this haven’t been keeping too close an eye on the latest set of the island of love. For those who don’t know, the 8e The run of the popular reality TV show kicked off this week, with 10 hot and handsome twenty-somethings beginning their two-month long quest for love, fame and £50,000.
Having myself in my twenties and far too much free time, I must admit that I am quite a fan of this television phenomenon, even if Kenneth Clarke Civilization it’s not. Nevertheless, one of the competitors came to mind when I saw The TelegraphThis morning’s story about Universities Minister Michelle Donelan’s plan to limit degree places with high dropout rates and low graduate employability. One of the contestants, named Liam, is 22 years old and has just completed a master’s degree in strength and conditioning.
According to Northumbria University’s website, the MSc in Strength and Conditioning is designed to give students “the knowledge and practical skills needed to coach elite athletes or pursue your own research studies at doctoral level.” . All very worthy. But I’m also 22, a year out of college, and a snob. I didn’t spend three years poring over the works of Maurice Cowling and Hugh Trevor-Roper in the Christ Church library for people to consider a Strength and Conditioning degree.
However, Liam will have the last word. Clearly, he can spend up to two months of his life groping in the Spanish sun with a bunch of beautiful girls in bikinis. But, as this article points out, the process of accessing the island of love is both much more competitive than entering Oxbridge, and much more financially rewarding. The average Oxbridge graduate earns around £32,000 after leaving university. The average the island of love the contestant wins £300,000 – possibly up to a million.
Even the most patient reader may wonder what all of this has to do with university politics. What I mean is that the vast majority of college students won’t have an experience like Liam’s or mine. They will go to one of the approximately 160 universities that are not Oxbridge, and they will not complete their studies and immediately move on to one of the most popular television programs in the country. From the age of three, they hope to have fun, do something that interests them and go back to a well-paid graduate job.
For far too many students, this is not the case today. New Labour’s target of 50 per cent of college dropouts was so stubborn that Blair’s son is now making millions encouraging eighteen-year-olds to take apprenticeships instead. Currently, at 25 universities and other providers, less than half of students starting a degree can expect to graduate and find professional employment or further education within 15 months. So much for a degree being a path to success.
The reasons are obvious. As universities expand rapidly, the quality of degrees suffers in the interest of attracting as many students as possible. The ever-increasing number of students, even at the worst performing universities, means the pressure is off at many institutions when it comes to providing the best quality student experience. For example, while many universities have dropout rates below 15% for computer science courses, eight have dropout rates above 40%.
All of this should worry the Conservatives. It is a huge waste of human potential if, while employers are calling for more young people leaving school without a diploma, we have young people who are wasting years of their lives in debt for diplomas which do not leave them better . That’s if they don’t drop out mid-course due to poor course quality. It breaks the basic expectation that a degree is a conduit for social mobility.
Fortunately, Donelan is on the case. Minister of State for Universities since February 2020, she has made it her mission to once again put quality before quality in our universities. To this end, the government has launched the Augar Review of Post-18 Education and Funding. Andrew Gimson recently hinted at plans to fine universities and then strip them of their student funding – essentially, shut them down – if they don’t improve.
But the government also appears likely to introduce a cap on places in courses that have high dropout rates and poor job prospects for graduates. It’s a cliché to complain about “Mickey Mouse” degrees in surfing, sociology, or sexuality, but there’s some truth to that complaint. For most, going to college isn’t about having fun and doing ancient Greek for four years. It’s an essential step to getting ahead in life – and it means providing value for the £9,250 it costs students a year.
That in 25 universities less than half of the students graduate is appalling. So Donelan is right to introduce some rigor into a system that has collapsed with ever-increasing numbers of participants, higher tuition fees brought in by foreign students, and Ponzi-style financial planning that favors continued expansion. Its support for minimum A-level entry requirements for courses is long overdue. If your course requires 3 A’s and you have 3 C’s, even cleaning magic shouldn’t get you a place.
So, at a time when the news is dominated by the setbacks of Boris Johnson, and when the wandering eyes of certain conservative commentators are distracted by the island of love, leadership intrigue and the test match which I certainly don’t type listening to, it’s only fair to step back and remember the good this government is doing. It may not be about building houses or cutting expenses as quickly as I would like. But it does a lot of students good, and it’s something to celebrate.