What Price a Piece of Paper? Just as the Government Raises Fees to Finance Greater Access to Higher Education, Research Suggests It's Not Worth It

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Jack Molloy never thought he would go to university. He left school with two lowgrade A levels. "I was sick of education. I was always much better at the hands-on work than the written stuff, and by the end of sixth form I really wasn't interested. I just wanted to get a job and get on with my life." While his friends took gap years, Jack began an apprenticeship as a mechanic. "I really enjoyed it, but soon realised that there was no money in it at all. I was getting 70 [pounds sterling] to 90 [pounds sterling] a week, and trying to live off that and pay rent. If I'd finished the three years' training, my starting salary would have been 13,000 [pounds sterling]."

Seeing little hope of a better salary without a degree, Jack applied for a course in aeronautical engineering at the University of Salford. "I didn't want to go back into education, but I didn't feel I had any choice." He didn't have the necessary A-level grades, yet was given a place anyway, with few questions asked. However, he was no more motivated than he had been at school. "The course was good, but I had all the same problems with the written work. I just don't enjoy it." He scraped a third-class degree and left university 12,000 [pounds sterling] in debt. He is now training to be an engineer for British Gas.

One senior lecturer at a new inner-city university sees a lot of students like Jack. "I would say that about 30 per cent of my students are simply not interested in studying," she says. "Many of them will admit that openly. They feel they have to get the qualification. It really brings down academic standards, and I feel indignant that the rest of the students get a bad deal."

The government wants 50 per cent of young people to go to university. The row over top-up fees has focused on who should pick up the tab. But a more fundamental question is whether such a high target is necessary or even desirable. The government's line is clear: learning is really all about earning. In 21st-century Britain, it argues, knowledge will be the most valuable commodity on the market, as jobs in manufacturing and services are shipped out to more cost-effective locations in the developing world. So young Brits must gain high-level skills that employers will not be able to buy more cheaply elsewhere. As the state cannot fund such a dramatic increase in student numbers, graduates have to shoulder the financial burden of their training. But that seems only fair, as they can expect to command high salaries in later life.

However, many young people don't see their studies as a financial investment. "You certainly don't do a course like mine because you think you're going to make money out of it," says Chloe Ostmo, an art student in Brighton. "The important thing is having the time and space to learn and be creative." Others feel that economic pressures detract from the more important benefits of higher education. "I didn't go to university to get rich," says James Page, who has a BA in English and an MA in philosophy from Leeds. "I did it because I was interested and wanted to make a useful contribution to society. But if I had left university in more debt, I'm sure I'd feel more pressured to put money first."

In fact, the economic benefits of increased access to university are far from assured. In their forthcoming book Playing to Win: managing employability in a knowledge economy, the academics Phil Brown and Anthony Hesketh argue that fierce competition for graduate jobs will cause salaries to fall, "I don't expect the earnings of the average graduate to be anywhere near as much as the government is predicting," Brown tells me. "Young people are being sold higher education on the basis that they will get high-paying jobs, hut this is based on a faulty under standing of the labour market. They may well find themselves struggling to pay back their debts."

Brown argues that companies are taking advantage of a labour market flooded with well-qualified young people, employing them in lower-level positions and paying salaries far below what a graduate would have expected in the past. …