For Brexit to be a success, British universities must shape up, fast

This week, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) revealed that university applications have fallen by 5% for the first time since fees were raised to £9000 per year in 2012.

In our most recent ieaTV interview, IEA author Peter Ainsworth finds this fall to be notable, arguing that it’s not hard to see why this would happen, when a staggering proportion of graduates leave higher education without any hope of attaining highly-skilled, high-paying work, even several years after graduation.

Regardless of whether these numbers are the start of a steep drop, or simply fluctuating, there is no doubt that the whole university process – from enrolment all the way through to repayments – could be better structured for student outcomes.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development estimates that 58% of graduates are doing jobs that should not require a degree, while the ONS reports that over a third of graduates are still in ‘non-graduate’ jobs five years after leaving university. This, combined with the added cost of higher education, has led many young people to conclude that university no longer offers decent value-for-money.

In this climate, lower university attendance might seem like a positive development, but despite almost 50% of young people attending university, Britain is suffering from a severe skills gap. Tech, finance and other sectors requiring data analysis are already showing a substantial shortage of British graduates and UK employers are increasingly turning to foreign graduates to meet their needs.

Once Britain leaves the EU and the free movement of labour is restricted (as all indications from the government so far suggest it will be), the extent of the UK skills gap will be felt even more keenly by British employers. A growing number of companies – 69% at the last count – believe they will struggle to recruit the right talent in Britain alone, when migration is reduced.

Our economy urgently needs more highly-skilled graduates – but, at present, too many universities in the UK are utterly failing to prepare students for the world of work. Hastened on by the removal of the cap on student numbers in 2015, underperforming British universities are trying to educate as many students as possible, at the lowest possible cost – cramming hundreds of undergraduates into overcrowded lecture theatres, giving them little to no contact time and often requiring only a couple of pieces of submitted work every term.

I am convinced that when future social historians look back on this period of our education policy, they will view it as a seriously effective hustle on the part of universities and other beneficiaries – in which a great many (often working-class) young people, were sold a lie and racked up severe debts in the process.

To lay the blame for this entirely at the feet of universities would be unfair, though, since this proliferation of mediocrity continues in the job market. Many employers now demand undergraduate qualifications for low-skilled positions that could be just as easily performed by non-graduates. Across the board, both universities and employers are having the paradoxical effect of making university attendance ever more essential to ambitious young people, while simultaneously devaluing the worth of an undergraduate degree.

At present, there is a vast array of measures to gauge how successful universities are – few of which have much to do with the outcomes of their graduates or the quality of education they receive. For instance, higher grades are currently required to secure research grants and send institutions up the league tables; a specification that has, unsurprisingly, led to rampant grade inflation. In Britain, this insidious process has reached an unacceptable level; last year, one in four students graduated with a first-class degree, a five-fold increase on the number achieving the top grade in 1999.

But it’s not all bad news. Because the current situation derives, in part, from a poorly-conceived system of rewards and incentives, it follows that even a few small changes to the current model could lead to markedly better outcomes. One possible approach could be to further stratify the student fees regime so that students repay loans based on their earnings after graduation. Most crucially, if students made these payments directly to university authorities, rather than government, it would create dramatic incentives for universities to help students into well-paid work.

Given that the British economy is growing and projected to experience further growth, with much of this job creation concentrated in highly-skilled areas, we shouldn’t celebrate a drop in graduates, per se. Unless the regulatory climate – and universities themselves – adapt fast to create the highly-skilled workforce our economy needs, Brexit is unlikely to be a success.


Madeline is the IEA’s Editorial Manager, responsible for commissioning and running the IEA blog, and creating content for the IEA podcast channel and other media outlets. Prior to joining the Institute, she worked as a Parliamentary researcher and speechwriter, and as a reporter for Newsweek Magazine. Madeline graduated from St Hilda’s College, Oxford in 2014, with a degree in English. As an undergraduate, Madeline was actively involved in university politics, and was elected to Standing Committee of the Oxford Union during her studies.

2 thoughts on “For Brexit to be a success, British universities must shape up, fast”

  1. Posted 08/02/2017 at 13:34 | Permalink

    “To lay the blame for this entirely at the feet of universities would be unfair…” This is true but you also need to look to the situation in schools. Many students have been so heavily coached through GCSEs and A levels that they are not able to function as independent learners when they get to university.

  2. Posted 11/02/2017 at 21:03 | Permalink

    Since I went to University (Sussex ’69-’72) there has been a three-fold increase in graduate numbers but has it produced three times as many engineers, industrial chemists, computer scientists, lawyers etc. etc.
    I had free tuition and a grant (360 ponds p.a.) and knew I was paid to learn.
    Britain needs a system of bursaries and grants , not silly debts from third rate colleges. I even did an MSc. at Brighton Polytechnic and we need real vocational places, not pseudo-gleaming spires.

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