University education: a £10k salary boost for the price of three flat whites? | Letters

Responses to Aditya Chakraborrtty’s article on ‘mis-sold and overhyped’ universities that are ‘just a con’

Aditya Chakrabortty’s piece is absolutely right (Mis-sold and overhyped: our universities are now just a con, 20 September). The tragedy is that it was all so predictable from the outset. But it is even worse than he sets out. When fees were allowed to increase to £9,000 (and paid by students) the average cost of teaching was about £6,000 (setting aside grants for some high-cost subjects). So, in a time of austerity, there was a bonanza. Many vice-chancellors behaved like lottery winners, committing to building projects and expansion, assuming the good times would continue to roll. At the same time, salaries of all but the highly paid were held down and a strike provoked over a pensions dispute.

In addition the government thought that the new market required new regulation, hence the nonsense of the national student survey and teaching excellence framework, with the inevitable increase in managerialism and a downgrading of academic influence in university policymaking.

I declare an interest because all will be revealed in a forthcoming book, English Universities in Crisis: Markets Without Competition.
Professor Emeritus Norman Gowar

• Aditya Chakrabortty’s attack on England’s universities is partly based on just the crass materialism he attacks. Though these universities undoubtedly overpromise, overhype, and entrench class division, they also remain in part refuges for truth-questing, learning, debate, and critique. How much a graduate earns in a lifetime is perhaps one kind of success; perhaps a better measure is how meaningful a life they can live. The subjects I care about (English literature, politics, philosophy, theology) are precious spaces for imagination, justice, truth, and spirit. Without these things, the better society Chakrabortty seeks won’t come about.
Professor Stefan Hawlin
University of Buckingham

• Aditya Chakrabortty’s gloomy and misleading picture about university education is not backed up by the evidence. If the country is to thrive, it needs more skilled graduates, not fewer. The benefits of getting a degree remain clear for individuals and for the economy and society.

Official figures are clear that graduate salaries are, on average, almost £10,000 a year higher than for non-graduates. Graduates are significantly more likely to be in employment than those with lower qualifications. There is rising employer demand for the broad skills developed at university across a wide range of subjects and levels. Universities are providing graduates with skills that will be valuable throughout their lives, and essential to the UK economy and society as the number of jobs requiring graduate-level skills continues to increase. The ability to think critically and to analyse and present evidence are skills that enrich graduates’ lives.

While there is still much more that needs to be done to improve social mobility, it is simply not the case that no progress has been made in relation to universities. In 2017, 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas in England were 82% more likely to enter higher education than they were in 2006.

Higher education is a public good that delivers societal and personal benefits. Rather than running it down, we should be proud that the UK has a well-deserved international reputation for high-quality teaching, learning and research.
Alistair Jarvis
Chief executive, Universities UK

• Towards the end of his excellent piece, Aditya Chakrabortty makes what many will think his most important point: “Labour also needs to expand vocational education”. Earlier in the week you reported that sixth-form and further education had been “hardest hit in cuts to education” (17 September).

Rather than suggest that 50% of the age cohort should go to university, it would make more sense and do more to iron out inequalities if vocational education at 16-plus was better funded and offered as a serious career choice for all. It would also be better for the economy, where industry faces skills shortages. For too long FE has been the neglected second cousin in the education debate. How many TV discussions or documentaries have there been about colleges or vocational training? Perhaps not enough journalists’ or MPs’ children have considered that route into employment. As Aditya says, class inequalities have not been tackled by pushing increased numbers through university. Improving choice at ages 16 and 18 by putting more money into vocational education will do far more.
Dave Verguson
Huddersfield, West Yorkshire

• I agree with many of the criticisms Aditya Chakrabortty makes of our universities, but it is misleading to use phrases such as “costly degree”, “pricey product”, “lumbered with some of the highest student debt in the world” – unless he is referring only to students from outside the EU. The claim that “the impact of £9,000-a-year university tuition fees will last for a long while” (Letters, 19 September) is similarly misleading.

The £9,250-a-year tuition fee does not have to be paid upfront. Nor is it a debt in the normal sense. Graduates do not even begin to repay it until they earn £25,000 a year. Above that they repay 9% on the excess over £25,000. At £30,000 a year, that’s just £450 a year – less than £9 a week, or the cost of two pints of real ale in London (three in Yorkshire), three flat whites or three slices of avocado on sourdough toast. If the loan is not paid off after 25 years it is cancelled.

It might be thought that an additional 9% on earnings above the threshold, on top of the 20% standard rate of income tax, making a total of 29%, is a bit steep. However, my generation (I was born in 1937), who received our higher education for free, paid a standard rate of around 33% for most of our working lives.
Peter Wrigley
Birstall, West Yorkshire

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