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Education: How did Mickey Mouse deserve this?

22 September 2023

Dennis Richards considers so-called ‘rip-off’ degrees


David Beckham Studies, anyone?

David Beckham Studies, anyone?

CRACKING down on things is much in vogue. Illegal migration, climate protests, anti-social behaviour, and, latterly, certain degrees have attracted the Government’s ire. First came those cartoons, covered up because they were accused of making hostel accommodation for migrants too friendly. Mickey Mouse was in trouble again, little more than a week later, accused of being responsible for worthless university degrees.

Not that this issue belongs to one political party. In fact, it would appear that it was Margaret Hodge, of New Labour, who first coined the term in 2003. When asked to define it, she came up with “where the content is perhaps not as rigorous as one would expect, and where the degree itself may not have huge relevance in the labour market”.

Twenty years on, Rishi Sunak waded into the same debate, and, as befits a man who watches over the nation’s money, Mickey doesn’t feature. Instead, he berates “rip-off” degrees, defined as courses “that have high drop-out rates, or are less likely to lead to high-paid jobs”.

It seems, therefore, that we continue to wrestle with same old, same old, in relation to higher education. What is its purpose?

Any attempt to give examples of instances of courses where Mickey Mouse is ripping off students invariably gets mired in idiocy or confusion. So, when Andrea Jenkyns, a former Education Minister lampooned “Harry Potter Studies” at Durham University, it turned out to be a module on a BA Education Studies course.

I’m not sure what Andrea thinks teenagers are reading, but it’s not Milton Friedman — or any other economics guru for that matter. And, to be fair, J. K. Rowling does seem to have succeeded on the “earning good money” test, as well. But, there again, the last time a Labour government was in power, Staffordshire University had a sociology module on the significance of football, quickly dubbed as “David Beckham Studies” in the media.

Art History at St Andrews (Duchess of Cambridge), Classics at Oxford (Boris Johnson), and Philosophy at Reading (Penny Mordaunt) were clearly not what Mr Sunak had in mind, but it is hard to define why, using Mr Sunak’s logic. Socrates opined on this question more than two millennia ago: “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” Discuss.

If we are still unsure as to what a university education is actually for, we are even more uncertain as to who it is for, and, more particularly, how many.

When “education, education, education” Tony Blair launched his ambition for 50 per cent of 18-year-olds to go to university, there was a widespread consensus that it was, at the very least, a noble aspiration. Indeed, it is worth reminding ourselves that in the 1960s only ten per cent of the cohort were in HE.

Soon, new universities were opened, in York and Warwick for example, and many former polytechnics and colleges of higher education were upgraded to university status. But, in recent times, the law of unintended consequences has made itself felt. Most notably, an exponential rise in the drop-out rate. And serious issues relating to HE finance.

The Sunday Times reports that, in eight business and management courses, in 2020-2021, no fewer than 40 per cent abandoned their courses. Overall, a record 11 per cent of full-time and 35 per cent of part-time students, dropped out.

It is easy to attribute this to grade inflation during the pandemic years, and students’ embarking on courses for which they were singularly ill-equipped. The Government prefers to think that such woeful figures can be avoided henceforth by scrapping such “rip off” courses, and pointing to a relatively successful A-level grade deflation process in the summer of 2023. It is hoped that students will be better matched academically to their course choice.

The Government is also keen to point to degree apprenticeship courses, introduced as recently as 2015. They are, however, still few and far between, with highly competitive entrance requirements, and such courses are heavily concentrated in the south-east. The incentive is clear: typically, a student will spend four days “in work” (roughly 32 hours) and one day training and/or studying. The starting salary is £20,000-plus. The downside for students is that the skills and training that they receive are related to one line of employment.

Tom Peach, a senior head of department at York St John University, describes how much of his time is devoted to attending meetings where retention, continuation, and progression of students are the lead items on the agenda. This is an institution that has consistently scored very highly in student satisfaction surveys: 82 per cent of students in the National Student Survey, published in August this year, have expressed positivity about their course; top in the north, and 13th nationally.

No doubt, a smaller cohort of students, on a beautiful, well-equipped site in the centre of a vibrant, world-famous city, helps. It is also achieved, Mr Peach believes, by a rigorous concentration on their students’ interests. Well aware that their students are feeling obliged to work more hours in part-time jobs than ever, facing all kinds of post-pandemic mental-health stress, attendance issues have, therefore, to be addressed with sensitivity and empathy.

This is also borne out by a comment from Sir Peter Lampl, the founder and chairman of the influential Sutton Trust, that “the less selective universities are doing the heavy lifting in driving social mobility.” The attainment gap between the north-east and the south-east is wider than ever. So much for levelling up.

Cynics are convinced that, in the long term, the Government wishes to “kill off” degrees where student outcomes suggest that they will never be able to pay off their student loans, which eventually will have to be written off by the Treasury.

Financial viability, competition, increased efficiency, and consumer choice are the current watchwords. The Blair project may be withering on the vine, but Mr Sunak would be wise to bear in mind that Socrates will not be changing his view any time soon.

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