Why University Fails the Poor; the True Cost of a Degree Is [Pounds Sterling]45,000. How Many Graduates Ever Earn That Back?

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), August 30, 2009 | Go to article overview

Why University Fails the Poor; the True Cost of a Degree Is [Pounds Sterling]45,000. How Many Graduates Ever Earn That Back?


Byline: DAVID DAVIS FORMER SHADOW HOME SECRETARY AND MP FOR HALTEMPRICE AND HOWDEN

You would have to have had a heart of stone these past few days not to have shared the joy in the eyes and voices of all those young men and women celebrating their GCSE and A-level results. It was a proper reaction to the success engendered by their years of hard work and their optimism about a bright future.

Yet behind the celebration of the glittering prizes, there is a darker story to be told. This story is that of an education system designed to create opportunity for all which, in fact, reinforces the class divide in our society.

The symptoms are all there for anyone with eyes to see. One in six of our young people is not in school, college or work. Many of them are from poor homes, often with an unemployed head of the household. Schools in poorer areas are dropping tough subjects - physics, mathematics, history and geography - in favour of the 'softer' subjects such as information and communication technology (ICT) or media studies, in the hope that weaker candidates will do better in these easier topics and prop up the school's position in the league tables.

If this were not bad enough, there are signs that this serial failure by our education system to help kids from poor backgrounds extends into the university sector.

About 20 years ago, in a fit of misguided egalitarianism, the then Conservative government abolished distinctions in higher education between universities and polytechnics. Of course, no stroke of the pen could abolish distinctions in performance between them. Indeed, there is some evidence that this action turned some first-class polytechnics into second-class universities.

This distinction in quality of education still exists but it is now hidden by the names. Indeed, it is likely that Labour's massive expansion in higher education has made the poor performance of the weakest colleges worse, not better.

Does it matter? Surely a degree is a degree, and any degree is a stepping stone to a professional career. Well, that is certainly true up to a point. Too many professions today brag about being 'graduate only', as if excluding the bright youngsters who could not afford university was some sort of virtue. But there is a harder truth hidden here. Going to university is no longer free.

When I went to university at Warwick, most of my contemporaries had grants, which were supplemented by parental contributions.

And, in an era of full employment, there was part-time work and holiday work to be had. Many of my friends got their first experience of real-life earning money on building sites or delivering Christmas mail or working behind a bar. We generally had no debt when we qualified. None of this is true today.

One report out last week predicted that students would leave university with an average debt of [pounds sterling]24,000. Poorer students, without wealthy parents to subsidise them, will probably have even bigger loans. Even that underestimates the real cost of university. If you add in all the costs, from tuition fees to the foregone income students would have had in a job for those three years, the real cost of a degree is [pounds sterling]45,000.

For most students, it is still a good deal. They earn enough in their career to make up for the costs and lost income. But this is not true for all graduates. For graduates of Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics and other top universities, their starting salaries will average between [pounds sterling]23,000 and [pounds sterling]27,000.

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