No form of education is a rip off: The crackdown should be on narratives that it is

In a world where education holds the key to success, the 'rip-off degrees' narrative risks stifling potential.

HST Prof Mary Vincent photo
Professor Mary Vincent, Vice President for Education at the University of Sheffield

By Professor Mary Vincent, Vice President for Education at the University of Sheffield.

Originally published in The Times.

“A man’s university degrees mean nothing to me until I see what he is able to do with them.” Perhaps the Prime Minister had Henry Ford’s words in mind when he announced a crackdown on so-called ‘rip-off’ university degrees. 

Nobody thinks that students or the taxpayer should invest in poor quality university degrees. We all want excellent university courses with high prospects for graduates to progress into skilled, meaningful employment. 

But there are two problems with the Government’s recent announcement that they want to limit the number of students universities can recruit onto courses that are failing to deliver ‘good outcomes’. 

The first is that the university regulator, the Office for Students, already has the power to limit numbers onto degrees that aren’t performing well. The plan will only affect a relatively small number of courses and universities. 

Secondly, and perhaps more concerning, is the Government’s own headline: ‘crackdown on rip-off university degrees’, which opens up the value of a university education itself to criticism.

I expect a Vice-President of Education defending university degrees is hardly a surprise. However, it is important to make the point that the knowledge and transferable skills taught via degree programmes are an important part of the UK’s future prosperity. Education, whether academic or vocational, has a critical role to play in how young people and those changing careers can give shape to their personal futures. A continuing rhetoric that bashes the value of a university degree is not helpful to anyone – to graduates, to universities or to wider society.  

It also isn’t an accurate picture. Just this week, Universities UK found that 73 per cent of graduates secured a job reflective of their ambitions in under a year and two-thirds said that going to university improved their job security. Employers also see the benefit, with 71% of business leaders giving their endorsement to the relevant skills that universities teach.

While we should consider alternative routes into work, such as apprenticeships – a rare example of a bipartisan policy - it is important to remember that many employers create them to fill the skills gaps of today. University degrees develop the knowledge and skills for the jobs of tomorrow. In the burgeoning days of an AI and green revolution, this is more important than ever.  

Universities should, and do, work closely with employers to ensure that graduates have the skills they need to respond to a dynamic, ever-changing job market – no matter what subject they have studied. 

Whether it’s applied sciences or humanities, university students discover how to approach problems, respond to large amounts of data, and frame questions so they learn the most from the answers. We need a broad knowledge base for our economy: even engineering firms don’t only employ engineers.

Universities help graduates articulate to potential employers how their experience has supported their development and preparation for work. Not just through their academic programmes, but the extra-curricular and work experience opportunities that enhance their employability and their ability to meaningfully contribute to society.

We also must continue to offer access to a university education to people from all backgrounds and not close off entry routes. In recent years, we have made strides in improving our own offer, ensuring more people who could be the first in their family or community to go to university – care leavers, refugees, mature students – do so.

Value for money in our education system is crucial, especially when the economic purse-strings are so tight. But that does not make any single degree of less value by nature.

A narrative of ‘rip-off’ degrees will only serve to put people off the opportunity that universities offer, including as a stimulus to social mobility. While it is important to state a degree is not the only route to employability, we should also be celebrating the breadth of skills and depth of knowledge our students are equipped with when they graduate; and the doors that are open to them as a result. 

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