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Is it really worth going to university?

Thursday 23 June 2005, by SUROOR*Hasan

The policy of one-size-fits-all has played havoc with higher education in the countries where it has been tried, including India, and the signs are that it is not likely to work in Britain.

HOW MUCH is a university degree really worth? Not in a lofty and abstract sense - such as contributing to collective social good, etc. - but in concrete, money, terms. To put it crudely: how much hard cash does it fetch in the market?

It seems rather an odd question to ask at a time when there is so much talk about the importance of "knowledge economy." But ironically, it is precisely this aggressive marketing of knowledge and learning, whose enduring symbol is a university degree, that has provoked a debate in Britain over the monetary value of higher education.

In a market-driven climate, people want to know what is the return they are going to get when they invest in a degree. It is not enough simply to tell them that their career prospects would improve or that they should expect to earn more than those who have not gone to university. Prospective graduates and their parents want precise figures. Exactly how much more would they earn in a lifetime after spending a minimum three years in a university, and starting off with an average graduate’s debt of more than ?10,000 as a result of student loans and other debts?

Leaving aside the academically-inclined who would go to university anyway, for most others the cost-benefit aspect of university education degree had always been an issue though not to the same degree as it has become now. In the days when higher education was relatively cheaper and a degree commanded a premium in the job market - not to mention the social status it conferred on a graduate - people did not mind slogging for three years. Indeed, it provided them a much-needed release after a regimented school life, and a period of freedom before taking the plunge. But with rising costs and uncertain job prospects, it is not exactly "fun" to be a university student in Britain where, unlike India, school-leavers are expected to fund their own education, which they do with government-sponsored loans, payable after they start earning.

Britain’s National Union of Students, which represents nearly three million U.K. students, has described the current lot as a "generation of tired and harassed students" steeped in debt even before they complete their education. Two-thirds of the university students, who work part-time, say they do it to pay for "basic essentials." According to half the students, interviewed for a survey recently, debt is the worst aspect of university experience. It is estimated that, on an average, a graduate could take up to eight years to repay all the debts accumulated in university.

Given such stakes, they want to know whether, at the end of the day, it is really worth it. Rattling off arguments about gaining knowledge, widening horizons and contributing to society would not do. "Ok, ok, we know all that ... tell us about bread-and-butter benefits of a degree. Where do we go from here in terms of individual material gain," they ask wearily. And the answer is: not very far. Not in the short term, anyway. And, certainly, not if you simply have an Arts degree from a run-of-the-mill institution, and went to university because everyone is doing it after a fashion. For, a degree has become so commonplace that it is neither a status symbol any more nor does it get too many brownie points in the job market. The expansion of higher education and easy access to it has caused a glut of graduates, and we all know that there is only one way in which surplus goods travel: downwards.

Declining market value

A new study, out in Britain, confirms the trend towards the declining market value of a university degree and drives a hole through one of the main arguments used by the British Government to justify the proposed increase in tuition fee. The Government has sought to sweeten the bitter pill of higher fee by hawking it as a dream investment, telling angry parents that, forget the educational social value of a degree, its monetary worth in the job market alone makes it a bargain not to be missed. And last year it produced some very impressive figures to make its case.

According to Government figures, graduates were likely to earn ?400,000 more over a lifetime than those who went to a job straight after school. Ministers waved this magic figure to argue that despite an increase in tuition fee, which will go up to ?3,000 a year from next year, this level of earning represented a huge return on investment. But it now turns out that they had got it wrong, and the real gap between the earnings of graduates and non-graduates is much narrower - ?140,000 to be precise, according to new research published by Wales University. There is no suggestion here that the Government deliberately set out to mislead. The difference between the two projections is because the monetary value of a degree has slumped sharply since 1995, the period that formed the basis for its calculations.

Within the ?140,000 range, there are, of course, variations depending on the nature of university qualification. Arts graduates are the worst affected while those with special science or engineering qualifications can still command respectable salaries. But the bottom-line is that there are simply too many graduates looking for work, and as a result salaries across the board have fallen in real terms.

"As the number of graduates competing for jobs increases, the earnings premiums they are getting are being bid down," says Nigel O’Leary, one of the academics behind the Wales University research. "A lot of people who, 15 years ago, would have left after A-levels and got jobs are now staying on at university. ... They leave with bigger debts and go on to do largely the same jobs, which are now called `graduate’ jobs," he told the BBC.

There are fears that university education could be devalued still more as the Government pushes its target of getting at least 50 per cent of school-leavers into higher education by 2010. We have seen the consequences of "massification" of university education in India where an ordinary degree barely registers with employers. One must hasten to point out, though, that the motivations behind opening up higher education in Britain are altogether different from what prompted policy-makers in India to open the doors of universities to anyone who had time on their hands.

In India, the insistence on a degree for even the lowliest of jobs was a ploy to keep people out of a crowded job-market for at least three more years. In Britain, ostensibly, the impulse is rather more egalitarian - the aim being to make it possible for children from poorer background to have access to higher education. There was a time when those from socially and economically weaker strata were either deterred from going to university because they lacked the means or they simply did not aspire to a world they had been conditioned to believe was not for them.

New Labour, when it came to power in 1997, aimed to free them from this "poverty of aspiration," as The Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley put it, "making Britain more equal, at least in opportunity." But egalitarianism too has its downside and the sheer increase in the number of people entering the job market with a degree has meant that being a graduate is no longer something special, or for employers to die for.

As Ms. Ashley reminds us, the era of "Lucky Jim and C.P. Snow" when the lucky few who went to university "did find their lives transformed as if by a magic wand that took them from factory lines to middle-class plenty" is well and truly gone. We are all graduates now. The push towards universalising university education has led to a dumbing down of standards by classifying polytechnics as universities, introducing non-academic vocational courses and rebranding diplomas as degrees. There is anecdotal evidence that the system is now allowing too many indifferent students to enter university contributing to a general decline of academic environment.

So, what are the lessons to be learnt from all this? Nobody would argue for a return to the era of academic elitism, but at the same time encouraging everyone to go and get a degree in the name of egalitarianism, irrespective of individual aptitude and regardless of the needs of employers, is to push the pendulum to another extreme. The policy of one-size-fits-all has played havoc with higher education in the countries where it has been tried, including India, and signs are that it is not likely to work in Britain.

See online : The Hindu

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