Analysing the purpose and value of universities | Letters

Readers debate course structure, tuition fees, mental health, the importance of arts and humanities, and the need to work for a common good

Simon Jenkins asserts that: “A university course has barely changed its three-year structure of lectures, essays and exams in a hundred years” (What are our universities for?, Journal, 31 May). It’s true that the sector remains sceptical about two-year degrees, but teaching and assessment methods on most university courses today would be unrecognisable to anyone who was a student 30 years ago.

Current politics students at Liverpool still attend lectures, submit essays and take exams. But they also analyse election data in computer labs, play the “Legislate!” board game designed for training civil servants, write political speeches, make podcasts on African politics, produce and present weekly radio shows, and undertake placements with MPs and in a range of local organisations. If Simon would like to spend a day sampling teaching at a contemporary university, I’m certain we can arrange something.
Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg
Reader in politics, University of Liverpool

• Simon Jenkins says “tuition fees have failed”. He is right: universities have not utilised the increased funding to reform the types of assessment or teaching methods used; they have not improved student services such as mental health provision; and the upsurge in undergraduate numbers has debased the quality of graduates due to larger class sizes and lower entry thresholds.

The Augar report’s focus on aggrandising further education has been overshadowed by the proposed cut in tuition fees. It is, however, the most salient aspect of the report. Too many teenagers are enticed by the allure of universities despite higher education often not suiting their strengths. There is a disastrous skills shortage in this country, which has caused an inordinate reliance on a migrant workforce. It is the government’s duty to ensure that the eclectic proficiencies of young people can thrive in the best interests of the country.

The marketisation of universities has benefited institutions, not students, and is thus antithetical to the eminent purpose of education: to draw out the best of each individual.
James Smith

• Reading Simon Jenkins’s response to the Augar report on universities, I was reminded of a line from Victoria Wood’s wonderful sitcom Dinnerladies: “Oh that Tony Blair, stick two poems up in a bus shelter and call it a university.”
Graham Russell
Market Drayton, Shropshire

• Simon Jenkins’ advocacy of two-year degrees comes at a time when the mental health of both students and staff has already been characterised as a crisis and an epidemic respectively. While staff rosters could, in theory, be arranged to limit teaching to two terms, students would be working intensively throughout both years. Two-year degrees may sound more efficient, but most students understandably do not want them.
Peter McKenna

• Serious consideration needs to be given to the proposals emanating from Philip Augar’s review of post-16 education (Bring back grants for low-income students, says report, 30 May). While they certainly shouldn’t be automatically accepted in full, there is a danger that in the current febrile political atmosphere, the review’s recommendations will be dismissed or cherry-picked based on what individual politicians and parties see as most electorally advantageous to them.

The review has addressed key issues that are crucial to tackling the country’s skill shortages, and extending the benefits of high-quality learning and employment to a much wider population of young people and adults. To this end, the proposals to restore maintenance grants for disadvantaged university students, have lifelong learning loans for all adults and maintenance loans for sub-degree courses, and significantly increase funding for further education and vocational training, should be particularly welcomed. As should the suggestion that there needs to be some national planning of higher education courses and student numbers. The crucial question about the proposed changes to tuition fees and loans is whether they will provide for a long-term sustainable system of funding higher education, given that in the next 25 years unpaid student loan debt is forecast to rise to around £1tn.
Chris Pratt
(Author, Building a Learning Nation), Leeds

• Matt Waddup states (Report,, 30 May) that a healthy society needs arts and humanities, and that these are “critical to our democracy”. This is an understatement. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the climate and environmental crises of our time cannot be addressed solely, or even principally, through science and technology. The situation requires a much broader range of expertise.

Arts and humanities graduates are essential to the necessary processes of thinking our way from our present system into sustainable ways of living for the future. This thinking cannot be achieved without a complex understanding of past societies, the stories that we tell about ourselves, and how we arrived in our present dangerous situation. It needs people who can engage critically and productively with the deeply embedded ideas that make change extremely difficult to envisage. It needs people who can communicate new ideas through a wide range of media, including visual arts, music and literature, and do so in engaging and expressive language. The arts and humanities have never been more fundamental to imagining and creating a liveable future for humanity. It is imperative that policymakers recognise this.
Dr Amanda Power
University of Oxford

• Between 1965 and 1971 I attended two universities, one redbrick, one Oxbridge. Perhaps I had a sheltered student career but I cannot recall anyone at either institution mentioning a link between graduation and earning capacity. A generation later, I shocked a school meeting, designed to inform parents and students about the application process, by referring to universities as stretching young people’s thinking processes to enable them to make a distinctive contribution to the common good. There was bafflement all round. Margaret Thatcher was coming towards the end of her time as prime minister. Whatever her governments did with the economy, the cultural damage should never be underestimated.
Geoff Reid
Bradford, West Yorkshire

• Join the debate – email

• Read more Guardian letters – click here to visit

• Do you have a photo you’d like to share with Guardian readers? Click here to upload it and we’ll publish the best submissions in the letters spread of our print edition


The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Securing a future for humanities: the clue is in the name| Letters
Letters: Prof Joe Smith, director of the Royal Geographical Society, Prof Sir David Cannadine, president of the British Academy, and Prof Norman Gowar respond to a Guardian editorial


18, Mar, 2019 @7:23 PM

Article image
Higher education reform is our priority | Letter from Robert Halfon MP
Letter: The cross-party education select committee firmly believes that if students are going to take on the big burden of a loan, there must surely be a good graduate job at the end of it, writes Robert Halfon MP


07, Nov, 2018 @6:24 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on humanities degrees: art for society’s sake | Editorial
Editorial: To reduce tuition fees while providing top-up grants only for sciences would distort higher education. We need history, poetry and French as well as Stem subjects


12, Mar, 2019 @6:54 PM

Article image
University grade inflation under the spotlight | Letters
Letters: Readers respond as ministers promise to address concerns over the growing number of first-class degrees


28, Oct, 2018 @5:36 PM

Article image
University education: a £10k salary boost for the price of three flat whites? | Letters
Letters: Responses to Aditya Chakraborrtty’s article on ‘mis-sold and overhyped’ universities that are ‘just a con’


24, Sep, 2018 @5:41 PM

Article image
I am no product of privilege | Letter from Michael Meadowcroft
Letter: Michael Meadowcroft takes issue with a reference to him in a previous letter regarding tuition fees


14, Nov, 2018 @5:53 PM

Article image
We need arts graduates as much as science ones | Letters
Letters: Readers write in response of planned changes to university courses, and the importance of a well-rounded education


29, Jun, 2020 @4:03 PM

Article image
A skilled workforce needs arts graduates | Letter
Letter: Jim Northover questions the logic in cutting funding for arts courses, when creative minds help drive the technology and engineering sectors


23, Jul, 2021 @3:23 PM

Article image
The threat facing humanities and the arts | Letters
Letters: Drama in schools gives students the opportunity to explore a wide range of issues, says Catherine Griffin, while Sue Jackson points to the favouring of Stem subjects at the expense of humanities in universities


11, May, 2022 @3:09 PM

Article image
Education’s value to society is lost amid focus on graduate salaries | Letters
Letters from Pete Dorey, Christine Hawkes, Bernie Evans, Prof Colin Richards and Dr Nick Pratt


03, Dec, 2018 @5:39 PM