University is a waste of money, warn MPs

A high price: In 2012, university fees tripled form £3,000 to £9,000 under the coalition government.

Is a degree worth the debt? Amid a major review of university tuition fees, a report from MPs is claiming that universities are not delivering value for money. Are they right?

In 1945, only 2% of people went to university. Now, almost half of us do. But should we think again?

“The blunt reality is that too many universities are not providing value for money,” says Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons Education Committee. He believes universities should “have a much sharper focus on developing skills.”

Roughly half of recent UK graduates are now working in jobs that do not require a degree.

Halfon’s comments came amid a government review of higher education.

One measure being considered is lowering tuition fees to £6,500 for some subjects like English and history, while raising them to £13,000 or more for STEM subjects, like medicine, which typically have higher graduate earnings.

Science courses are also more expensive to run than arts courses, which have fewer teaching hours.

However, some academics fear that this change would risk relegating arts degrees to a lower status, with less funding, while discouraging poorer students from studying science.

Currently, most universities charge £9,250 in annual tuition fees, which students can pay with a loan. To cover their living costs, students can borrow a further £8,000, or £11,000 in London, depending on their family income.

This saddles the average student with around £50,000 of debt at graduation.

Last year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that British graduates are leaving university with the highest student debts in the developed world. In the US, which is famous for its high fees, the average graduate debt is $36,000 (£28,000).

However, the typical university graduate earns £10,000 more every year than the average non-graduate.

But perhaps we should not talk about the value of university only in terms of money.

Universities “educate people, stimulate research and prepare a nation for the needs of the modern world,” says journalist Adam Parsons. On a personal level, “it taught me how to deal with problems, friendships, time and, yes, hangovers.”

Is a degree worth the money?

Don’t lecture me

No way, say some. University now means paying exorbitant prices for hardly any teaching in a discipline that won’t matter for your career. Most of the fees go towards cushy salaries for vice-chancellors anyway. Even if you do find your degree worthwhile, you will have a mountain of debt piled on top of you when your adulthood is just beginning.

Of course it is, respond others. It is a noble, enriching goal to pursue knowledge and make yourself a better, more interesting person. Besides, you’ll be competing for jobs with people who have been to university. Financial concerns are just scaremongering because you will never have to pay your debt back if you cannot afford it.

You Decide

  1. Is university worth the money?
  2. Should arts students pay less than science students?


  1. Word association time! Write down as many words as you can to do with “university”. Are they positive or negative? Compare your words as a class and talk about what they tell you about perceptions of higher education.
  2. Should fewer or more people go to university? Should universities be more selective about the subjects they teach? Should we abolish university and train everyone in vocational courses? Consider these questions and, with your own research, write a page explaining what the university system would look like in your perfect society.

Some People Say...

“Knowledge […] is not a coin which we pay down to purchase happiness, but has happiness indissolubly bound up with it.”

A. E. Housman

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Commons Education Committee has warned that many students in England are spending too much on university and getting too little in return. The government is currently carrying out a review into higher education standards. It is due to report on its findings early next year. The Education Committee also expressed concern that the review is unlikely to make the necessary recommendations because its scope has been restricted by the government.
What do we not know?
The true benefits of going to university. Things like the value of a university course and its effect on your future salary are hard to measure accurately. Graduates generally earn more than non-graduates over their lifetimes, but that may not be true for less prestigious courses and institutions.

Word Watch

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that in 2017, 49% of recent graduates were working in a non-graduate role.
Science, technology, engineering and maths. People who study these degrees tend to go into higher-paying industries, like technology, medicine or finance. These subjects also tend to have more lectures and require more expensive equipment.
The figure is higher, at around £57,000, for the poorest students in England. This is because they generally have to borrow more money to support themselves while living at university.
A recent study by The Guardian found university vice-chancellors are paid far more than those in other public sector leadership roles. The vice-chancellor of Bath University earns more than £450,000. Salaries for vice-chancellors have increased by an average of 40% over the last 10 years.
Pay your debt back
You only have to pay off your student loan when you start earning more than £25,000 a year, after which repayments increase with your salary. Outstanding debt is written off after 30 years.


PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.