All degrees are created equal, but some are more equal than others

Helen Lawless

This week young people all over the country got their A-levels results, and it got me thinking about the dilemmas faced by prospective and current university students, as well as recent graduates. Students are one of the least sympathized groups in society. They are seen as whiny middle class kids who take but don’t contribute. They are also geographically dispersed and have low voting turnout. That’s why they’re routinely put under the political axe.

For example just recently Cameron’s government installed two new measures:

1)      To convert the maintenance grant, a means-tested grant given to full-time university students from households which earn £42,620 per annum or less, into a repayable loan.

2)      To impose the condition that foreign students must get a job which pays 20k within four months of graduation or they’ll be deported.

Both of which punish the groups of students with the least resources to fall back on and harm our economy in the process, as we hamper talented graduates with greater debt or lose them entirely.

The government says university is an investment in your future and that’s why these further hits are justifiable.

First of all let’s be clear, converting in the maintenance grant into a loan adds to the huge pile of debt students from working class families will owe upon graduation. The mere fear of this debt may put many more working class kids off from applying to university entirely, as they perceive it as a sum which they will never be able to repay.

But more importantly it’s not just a perception that it’s not always worth it. A bachelors’ degree in no way guarantees you a well-paid job like it used to. If you study a highly-enrolled subject, like English or Psychology, or if you don’t attend a university whose prestige alone will guarantee you an interview, like Oxford or Cambridge, there is no assurance that you will ever have enough disposable income to pay that money back. According to the Telegraph, over 60% of current student loans are written off because of that fact. And with more people graduating university than ever before, it’s becoming increasingly competitive to get graduate opportunities and reputation counts more than ever.

And that’s what really irks me about the whole system. The real issue goes beyond arbitrary cut-offs in fees like £9000 versus £6000. It’s the fact that, if university is supposed to be an investment you pay for, why is not remotely linked to what you’re likely to get out of it? Different degrees, depending on their subject and institution, are more or less likely to get you a desirable career in your specialist field. Simply put, a degree from Oxford and a degree from Middlesex are not equal in value. No offence to Middlesex but it’s a cold hard truth. One of those names will open you up a wildly greater set of doors than the other. Yet students are saddled with the same debt either way.

If university is supposed to be an individual investment which students take on in order to better the quality of their own lives – not a watertight position but a reasonable stance to take – then it is simply ludicrous that a student’s expected return has nothing to do with the size of their investment. If an entrepreneur went on the Dragon’s Den and said the potential returns didn’t matter because the point was the Dragon would have made an investment they’d be laughed out of the room.

Currently the only real tools you have as a prospective university student to compare courses and decide the best option for you are university league tables produced by the Times and the Guardian. That’s somewhat worrying given for instance the most recent Guardian league tables placed Surrey ahead of LSE, the place that produced Nobel Prize winning economists like Paul Krugman and Amartya Sen, for prospective Economics students, and Leicester ahead of Imperial, one of the leading research institutes in country, for aspiring physicists. But not only are these league tables frequently, let’s say, a tad inexplicable, they’re also conducted by private institutions without oversight. With young peoples’ futures at stake it’s not a good enough solution.

There should be some regulated mechanism by which the amount a university is allowed to charge its students is tied to the added value they prove they can provide to those students. We need some way to highlight the discrepancies in quality to sixteen year-olds so they can’t be tricked by fancy marketing departments and bad league tables into opting for degrees which ultimately do not provide them with the opportunities they promise and cost more than they’re worth. Universities currently employ huge resources in marketing to potential students, polishing their websites and brochures, lauding their beautiful accommodations, and it’s easy to buy into the hype. Moreover working class students or first generation university goers are the ones who are least likely to already know which courses will stand in their favour in the long-term, as they have fewer people around them who can advise them realistically.

Currently there are thousands of university graduates who feel bitter about the fact that their degrees did not open the doors they promised to, and so they should be. If we’re going to treat students like discerning customers then we can’t continue to let the price of a shiny Mercedes Benz be the same as a beat-up Peugeot.

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