Aditya Chakrabortty’s article is absolutely right (Missold and Overhyped: Our Universities Are Just a Jerk, September 20). The tragedy is that everything was so predictable from the start. But it’s even worse than he says. When fees were allowed to increase to £9,000 (and paid for by students), the average cost of education was around £6,000 (setting aside grants for some expensive subjects). So in times of austerity there was a windfall. Many vice-chancellors behaved like lottery winners, embarking on building and expansion projects, assuming the good times would keep rolling. At the same time, wages for all but the highest paid were kept down and a strike was called over a dispute over pensions.
Furthermore, the government believed that the new market required new regulation, hence the absurdity of the national student survey and teaching excellence framework, with the inevitable increase in managerialism and a degradation academic influence in the development of university policies.
I declare an interest as all will be revealed in a forthcoming book, English Universities in Crisis: Markets Without Competition.
Professor Emeritus Norman Gowar
Aditya Chakrabortty’s attack on English universities is partly based solely on the crass materialism he attacks. While these universities undoubtedly overpromise, exaggerate, and entrench class division, they also remain in part havens for truth-seeking, learning, debate, and criticism. How much a graduate earns over their lifetime is perhaps a form of achievement; perhaps a better measure is how meaningful the life they can live is. The subjects close to my heart (English literature, politics, philosophy, theology) are precious spaces for the imagination, justice, truth and spirit. Without these things, the best society that Chakrabortty seeks will not materialize.
Professor Stefan Hawlin
University of Buckingham
Aditya Chakrabortty’s gloomy and misleading picture of university education is not supported by evidence. If the country is to prosper, it needs more qualified graduates, not fewer. The benefits of earning a degree remain clear for individuals, the economy, and society.
Official figures make it clear that graduate salaries are, on average, almost £10,000 a year higher than non-graduates. Graduates are much more likely to be employed than the less qualified. There is a growing demand from employers for soft skills developed at university across a wide range of subjects and levels. Universities provide graduates with skills that will be valuable throughout their lives and essential to the UK economy and society, as the number of jobs requiring university-level skills continues to rise. The ability to think critically and to analyze and present evidence are life-enriching skills for graduates.
Although there is still much to be done to improve social mobility, it is simply not true that no progress has been made when it comes to universities. In 2017, 18-year-olds from the most deprived parts of England were 82% more likely to gain access to higher education than in 2006.
Higher education is a public good that provides societal and personal benefits. Rather than belittle it, we should be proud that the UK has a well-deserved international reputation for high quality teaching, learning and research.
Chief Executive, Universities UK
Towards the end of his excellent article, Aditya Chakrabortty makes what many will think his most important point: “Work also needs to extend vocational education”. Earlier in the week, you reported that sixth grade and higher education had been “hardest hit by education cuts” (September 17).
Rather than suggesting that 50% of the age cohort should go to university, it would make more sense and do more to even out inequalities if vocational education at 16+ were better funded and offered as a career choice. serious career for all. It would also be better for the economy, where the industry is facing skills shortages. For too long, EF has been the neglected little cousin in the education debate. How many TV talks or documentaries have there been about colleges or career training? Perhaps not enough children of journalists or MPs have considered this path to employment. As Aditya puts it, class inequalities have not been addressed by pushing more people into college. Improving choice at 16 and 18 by investing more money in vocational education will do much more.
Huddersfield, West Yorkshire
I agree with many of Aditya Chakrabortty’s criticisms of our universities, but it is misleading to use phrases such as ‘expensive degree’, ‘expensive product’, ‘burdened with one of the most highest in the world” – unless it refers only to students from outside the EU. The claim that “the impact of university tuition fees of £9,000 a year will last a long time” (Letters, 19 September) is also misleading.
Tuition fees of £9,250 per year do not have to be paid in advance. Nor is it a debt in the normal sense of the word. Graduates don’t even start paying it back until they earn £25,000 a year. Beyond that, they refund 9% on 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 repaid after 25 years, it is cancelled.
One might think that a 9% surcharge on income above the threshold, on top of the standard 20% income tax rate, totaling 29%, is a little high. 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.
Birstall, West Yorkshire
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