The Tory war against 'low-value' university degrees is a sham

An attempt to cap the number of students studying for courses that may not lead to a professional job is a deflection from the real issues

Students from Cambridge University make their way home after celebrating the end of the academic year at a May Ball in Trinity College in 2022. PA Wire
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When politicians are in trouble, failing to solve real problems for real people, they often invent spurious “problems” and supposed “enemies” to stir up voters. It’s the politics of distraction.

In Britain, after 13 years of Conservative governments, voters say they mostly worry about the cost of living, health care, schools, low pay and lack of affordable housing. But a few days ago, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – in deep political trouble with these real issues – was reported to be planning to “divide and rule” by offering deliberately divisive policies on crime, migration and transgender rights. The idea is to wind up voters on “hot button” issues in the hope they forget their real problems.

But behind all this, I wonder if Mr Sunak’s Conservative party is creating yet another problem for itself. It seems to treat young people with contempt. Younger voters appear to loathe them in return. By the end of last year, only 2 per cent of British voters aged 18-24, and just 15 per cent of 25-49-year-olds, said they intended to vote Conservative. Older voters are much more Tory-friendly. Yet the divisive alienation of young people is bizarre.

Last week, a 25-year-old won a by-election for the opposition Labour party. Instead of congratulating this young man for an astonishing achievement, a (middle-aged) Conservative MP condescendingly joked that the new MP was like one of the “Inbetweeners”. Historically we should note that one of the UK’s greatest leaders was William Pitt the Younger. He became prime minister aged just 24 and led the country in the Napoleonic wars.

Despite these middle-aged MPs trying to make young people feel bad about their achievements, the expansion of university education in Britain is a huge success

But Conservative contempt for the young goes further. There are plans to cap the number of students studying for what the government claims are “low-value” university degrees. This is vaguely defined as courses that do not have a high proportion of graduates getting a professional job (however that is defined), going into post-graduate study, or starting a business.

Conservative MP Miriam Cates claimed this “marks the beginning of the end for the overblown and under-scrutinised expansion of the higher education sector over the past 25 years” and what she (again vaguely) claimed was “elite overproduction”, whatever that means.

An “elite” created through “low-value” degrees sounds contradictory. Almost 40 per cent of young people in Britain go into higher education. Logically you cannot have an “elite” who are such a large proportion of the population and who are simultaneously “low-value”. Despite these middle-aged muddle-minded MPs trying to make young people feel bad about their achievements, the expansion of university education in Britain is a huge success.

In 1950, barely more than 3 per cent of British people (mostly men) went to university. That was truly an elite. By the 1960s, it reached 4 per cent. But university expansion meant that by the 1970s, 14 per cent of British people went to university and the numbers have continued to expand until recently. The majority of undergraduate students now are women.

Yet with real-term cuts in funding of universities and the loss of tens of thousands of foreign students post-Brexit along with crippling levels of student debt, many universities face financial difficulties. So, obviously, do many students. Student numbers have fallen back to just below 40 per cent.

I was the first in my family to go to university. I am now in my 10th and final year as Chancellor of the University of Kent, one of those wonderful institutions created in the 1960s to expand opportunities for people like me.

Our degree ceremonies are in two of the greatest buildings in Western Europe: Rochester and Canterbury cathedrals. At the ceremonies, I shake hands with hundreds of happy students, mostly in their twenties, mostly from the UK but also from all over the world. In Canterbury Cathedral last week, I was in the company of several thousand very happy people over five days, including parents and grandparents proud of the achievements of the next generation.

I have no idea what a “low-value” degree is, nor what “elite overproduction” is supposed to be. These seem to be artfully constructed terms to diminish the achievements and undermine the dreams of young people who are pursuing a better life for themselves, their families and their country. The current generation of students face difficulties. But their abilities are extraordinary. And so is their resilience.

Politicians in search of a cheap headline should think twice before pandering to the presumed prejudices of older voters. Older voters are parents and grandparents too.

Politicians who attack young people and their aspirations are unwisely attacking our future, and perhaps diminishing their own. Recently, some have even argued that educating students pushes them to the left in politics. Perhaps those politicians prefer ignorance and intellectual docility.

Universities do not teach what to think. They try to teach how to think. I remain optimistic about the high values of the students I have seen graduate. I am less optimistic about the values of middle-aged moaner politicians.

If they want to capture the image of a truly low-value real-life elite, I suggest they begin by looking in the mirror.

Published: July 26, 2023, 7:00 AM