Has England become the worst place to be a student?

·6-min read
Universities and students are both keen for a return to normal campus life - CYDHPT
Universities and students are both keen for a return to normal campus life - CYDHPT

“Who isn’t frightened at how expensive university is when you are 18 or 19?” asks Edmund Bissett, who’s starting the second year of his media degree at City University London. He’s right to worry, say some – English universities provide some of the most expensive public education in the world.

But Bissett knows why he’s there: facilities are swanky, he doesn’t mind exams, is taught by media professionals and hopes to land a job in journalism, aided by hard work, university contacts and being in London. He works during holidays to supplement his cash. “University is like a stepping stone,” says Bissett, “a natural progression. Everyone I know has gone. Being able to do a course I love – it’s definitely worth it for me.”

But since the pandemic, a steady drumbeat of discontent has been getting louder – fees are extortionate, parents are disgruntled and last year was dismal. Even before Covid shut campuses and sent students home, there were rumblings about value for money.

This summer saw a host of (well educated) columnists declare that if they were making a choice today, they wouldn’t go to uni. And why would you when you could earn healthy pay driving lorries or plumbing? There is an overwhelming feeling that students are being squeezed in every direction.

Now a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has shown that undergraduate university fees have increased threefold in 10 years in England – faster than in any other developed countries.

Moreover, a degree confers less financial advantage over a lifetime upon UK graduates than it does their international counterparts. In the UK, a degree repays £3.40 for every £1 spent, lower than every developed country apart from Sweden. Could the shift to online degrees upset the UK university applecart, asked Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the OECD?

“Personally I struggle to see the value for money right now,” says Toby Alexander, who is in his third year studying planning and real estate at the University of Manchester. He didn’t even consider the cost when he first applied. “But £9,250 is extremely expensive – especially with the last year and paying that amount for a poorly managed online teaching system.”

However, public universities elsewhere in Europe and the US are a very different experience from the UK, says David Hawkins, founder of The University Guys. We risk forgetting, he says, what a world class education system the UK has – and that many students don’t ever repay fees in full. “And I’m saying that when it’s my job to help students leave the UK,” Hawkins points out, “to go study somewhere else.” He and other observers aren’t forecasting a brain drain any time soon.

In its research, the OECD is comparing apples with oranges, says Hawkins. It’s only the much pricier private universities abroad – the likes of IE University Madrid (€21,600 a year) or Bocconi University in Milan (€12,883 a year) – that offer a similar experience to their UK counterparts. While Europe’s public universities are cheaper, the experience they offer is more akin to a busy secondary school, he says.

“You turn up, sit in crowded lectures with hundreds of other students and you might never have direct contact with any professors. You don’t get the libraries, facilities, extracurricular activities and so on. UK universities are relatively cheap compared with equivalents abroad. You could pay $75,000 for a top US university. But in a public institution, the experience isn’t the same.”

Even before Brexit, very few UK teens braved an education abroad and now that appears even less likely. Countries such as Ireland haven’t changed policies but those such as the Netherlands require a visa and higher fees. “Note there’s no standard EU approach – it’s 27 different higher education systems,” says Hawkins.

And the UK application system – run on a single Ucas platform for multiple applications – is friendlier than anything used abroad, says Hawkins. If applicants here sweat the personal statement, then consider the demands from elite US universities, where hopefuls must submit at least one or two tailored essays for each institution, sometimes more.

While students such as Bissett had regular face to face teaching last year, many of his friends weren’t so lucky. “One didn’t actually go in to uni all year.” And it’s the hurly burly of student life, cafés, bars, clubs and chats with lecturers that means so much to both students and staff, a survey by Hepi (Higher Education Policy Unit) showed – just one in four students feels they’ve had value for money. Overwhelmingly, students want to be on site, in person, and largely not online. Universities too are desperate to bring their students back – empty campuses are sad places.

“No university vice chancellor is sitting around saying ‘I hope our expensive buildings stay empty’,” says Charlie Ball, labour market specialist at Jisc. “Every university wants to get back to in person teaching – they are well aware where their value lies.”

But there will probably be a shake-up of universities, says Sutton Trust director James Turner. “We’ll likely see more hybrid teaching methods… and we may see new online-only entrants to the higher education market.” Value for money will loom large as young people make their choices, he says.

In many ways this is a failure of communication about where the money goes, say observers. Running campuses, paying staff, and providing labs and equipment costs more than the tuition fees received – and it’s the Government, not universities, that sets the cap on fees.

As one lecturer at London University says: “It’s relating the income unis receive to how many students they get that is the heart of the problem. If you run them as a business, they’ll act like one – no choice.”

Remember, says Ball, that the majority of young people still don’t go to university – and numbers have hovered around 45 per cent for years. But, as Alexander points out, ambitious young people don’t see many other options. “Without a degree it would take many years working up to the stage I hope I’ll be able to start at,” he says.

Most students who do A-levels go on to university, says Ball, partly because alternative choices are limited, despite Government intentions to invest in technical education. Degree apprenticeships and professional training schemes were hit badly by the pandemic and even before, schemes were scarce and got snapped up by educated middle class students rather than the poorer students they targeted.

Tomorrow’s jobs will require complex skills more likely to be acquired at university – on the job training, says Ball, has been underfunded for years. While 20 per cent of higher education students are worse off over a lifetime, largely speaking, a degree still pays – overall, women are £100,000 better off and men gain £130,000 (IFS figures, slightly different from OECD) – but it matters where and what you study.

“There’s not really a viable alternative at this point,” says Ball. “A degree is still a ticket to the middle classes.” Universities offer safe and familiar pathways, and the graduate job market is established. “I think, from young people’s point of view, we are taking the lack of options for granted,” he says.

“Nevertheless, a large majority of people who go to university have a good time. And the chances are high that if you get a decent degree, you’ll get a good job.”

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