Keen to ensure value for money (for learners and the state) the government has asked the higher education regulator (the Office for Students) to place limits on courses which represent “poor value”. The judgment of what is good value is to be based on graduates’ income, employment in a professional or managerial job, or further study, measured 18 months after graduation. Although traditionalists still argue that the main purpose of higher education was never to produce cannon fodder for the labour market, outside a small group of elite institutions, they are now a shrinking minority.
Discouraging potential students from taking up poor quality courses is a laudable objective. But what constitutes ‘poor quality’ is a highly contentious issue. Not all high-skilled jobs are well paid, as many teachers and doctors will testify. And timing is critical: a maths graduate who joins one of the big consulting firms will have a very high income within a year, while a drama graduate may spend some years in low paid casual work before becoming established in a career. That does not make drama a less valuable subject to study.
A history: from autonomy to instrument of the state
In the last 70 years, British higher education has been radically transformed. In the 1950s, a handful of autonomous universities prepared around 5% of school leavers (mostly boys) for elite leadership roles across society. This was seen as a natural thing for taxpayers to pay for. Universities were trusted to manage themselves, making their own rules and mostly left alone by government. Students were given grants to cover the costs.
In the 1960s it became clear that a changing economy and society required far more highly qualified people, and the system began to expand. As it did so over the following decades, government increasingly intervened, to control the costs, capping numbers and introducing a national scheme of student fees. Then, as higher education came to be seen as a tool for upward social mobility, governments began to demand a focus on widening participation, in terms of gender, social class and ethnicity.
There are now over 200 institutions awarding degrees. Half of today’s 30-year-olds have received higher education; and they now pay very high fees for the privilege. And the system is overseen by funding and quality assurance bodies which would have been anathema to the universities of 1960.
Enter the market
The Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s brought a much more instrumental view of higher education. Increasingly, higher education came to be seen not as producing educated people, but as preparing people for the labour market. Higher education itself became a market, with institutions and courses competing to attract students, with “league tables” to help applicants choose. A key measure in these tables was the proportion of graduates in high-skilled employment or with high earnings.
“Somewheres” and “anywheres”
Markets are always more complex than neoliberal theory imagines. In higher education, geography is a critical distorting factor. Some people are more mobile than others. Theresa May famously divided people into “anywheres” and “somewheres”. “Anywheres” were rootless, with no loyalty to a particular community and pursuing opportunities across the country and the world. These are the 58% of students who travel out of their region to study. They are much more likely to be white, middle class, and privately educated. Eighteen months after graduation a quarter of them have not returned to their home region.
By contrast, the drive to widen participation has brought in many young people from poorer areas with no history of higher education. Many of these are “somewheres”, with fewer role models, and with lower aspirations and financial resources. So they are much more likely to attend a local institution and continue to live at home, and the proportion doing so has been rising steadily. When they graduate, they are more likely to stay, and seek employment in their home area, which constrains their opportunities. Fifteen months after graduation the average graduate living in the East of England earns £5,000 a year less than their peers in London.
Five years after graduation, nearly two-thirds of graduates who had been on free school meals (a standard measure of disadvantage) had stayed in their home region to study, and 18 months after graduation 84% of them had never left their home region. They are more likely to have studied in low-status and local institutions.
For these “somewheres”, attachment to a community comes with a price, in terms of income and employment opportunities. But that does not mean that their courses failed.
So where are the “good” graduates?
Government wants a focus on graduate earnings and high-skilled work, but the map is complicated.
Figure 3 shows the proportion of new graduates earning more than £24,000 pa in an area (the quintile is one fifth of the graduate population, with quintile 1 having the lowest proportion). The map shows that there is a direct relationship between distance from London, and the proportion of high paid graduates. Norfolk and Tendring, like most of the north and south-west of England, have the lowest proportions, while those nearest to London – Cambridge, Bedford, Hertfordshire and most of Essex – have the highest.
Figure 4 shows the proportion of graduates in high-skilled employment. Here the picture is much more complicated. At a finer level of detail, Cambridge and Great Yarmouth both have 77% of new graduates in high-skilled jobs, but while Cambridge has 8,695 graduates, Great Yarmouth has only 550. By contrast, Luton has a lot of graduates (7,075), but they are less likely to be in high skilled jobs (68%). Other areas have both small numbers of graduates and a low proportion in high-skilled work. These are primarily areas remote from London and major urban centres, including Cromer, Thetford, Wisbech, and Lowestoft, which together account for less than 3% of the region’s graduates, and in all of them fewer than 67% are in high-skilled work.
Are going in the right direction?
There may be courses and institutions which deliver little for their students. But the problems may lie as much in the nature of local economies, and the reluctance of some graduates to become “anywheres”.
In 2021, the Office for Students published “Place matters: inequality, employment and the role of higher education”. That briefing paper outlined the unequal distribution of higher education opportunity across England, and suggested ways of addressing it. Some of the institutions which have done most to help are most vulnerable to this latest initiative. The Office for Students will need to tread carefully, and there will be no shortage of academics and administrators poring over the mountains of data to defend their cases.