Debate: Has University Expansion Been a Big Mistake? ; as Students Return to College, We Ask Whether Growth in Higher Education Has Seen a Drop in Standards

By Peter Scott; Robert Skidelsky | The Independent (London, England), September 24, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Debate: Has University Expansion Been a Big Mistake? ; as Students Return to College, We Ask Whether Growth in Higher Education Has Seen a Drop in Standards


Peter Scott; Robert Skidelsky, The Independent (London, England)


NO - Peter Scott

'I have no sympathy for the view that an academic education should be for an elite'

YES - Robert Skidelsky

'The question is, would the 23 per cent of extra students be better off outside university?'

ROBERT SKIDELSKY Kingsley Amis was right when he famously said in the 1960s that "More means Worse". Intellectual ability is spread more thinly across the 30 per cent of school-leavers who now go to university than the 7 per cent who used to go. But the more interesting question is: would the 23 per cent of extra university students (or the 43 per cent if Tony Blair's "target" is realised) be better-off outside university? What is clear is that university expansion has been driven by under-pricing of university courses - until recently by no pricing. The more under- priced a university education is to the student, the more students there will be.

The Government pays for students because it regards a university education as an investment in productivity ("human capital"). It expects employment, growth and incomes to be higher the more young people go to university. However, this is faith, not fact. Even if it was fact, it would not justify under-pricing, a large cost to the taxpayer.

PETER SCOTT Higher education is under-funded, which is different from being under-priced. The argument for so-called "top-up" fees is hopelessly confused. The vice-chancellors of "Russell Group" universities who support top-up fees (by no means all, of course) argue that they need the extra revenue (which, incidentally, they will never get: the Treasury will see to that) to provide the same number of - or more - students with improved conditions; they would never admit, as you do, that the likely effect would be to depress demand and cut numbers. Is that what Britain really wants to do on the brink of the Knowledge Society, reduce the supply of highly skilled people?

RS A university degree is a good investment for a student. It increases a graduate's earning power by about pounds 400,000 over a working lifetime compared with a non-graduate. However, the relative advantage of a university education is bound to diminish the more people enjoy it. This suggests that there is a "natural" limit to the demand for places. Proper pricing of courses, other things being equal, will greatly slow down, and may even reverse, the rise in student numbers. That is why all but the elite universities oppose it.

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