This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Polly Mackenzie, Chief Social Purpose Officer at the University of the Arts, London (UAL).
Ahead of the government’s long-anticipated higher education reforms, knives are out for “low value” university courses with supposedly little economic return. Degrees are expensive and students are right to worry about careers. But viewing university through a purely economic lens underestimates its value not only to the people who go there but to society as a whole.
“In today’s world, there is no such thing as too clever,” declared Tony Blair in 1999, “the more you know, the further you’ll go”. His government set a target for half of young people to go to university. It was finally met in 2019. Once considered an indisputable good, today the value of a university education is more contested. This is largely down to tuition fees, a policy some once-enthusiastic backers now think was a mistake.
Last week Sam Freedman did a good job of explaining how unexpected incentives in the system led to the current squeeze in which fees are uncomfortably high for students yet too low for cash-strapped, inflation-hit universities. He and I made the same errors of judgement when we worked together on this policy in 2010. My regrets go one step further, as I see the policy’s fundamental error, in hindsight, was one as much of narrative as of cash. It is an error — or double error — that continues to skew how we think and talk about higher education in this country. And is at the root of the government’s hugely damaging assault on the arts and humanities.
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