Ryan Shorthouse: If degrees don't pay off, why charge more?

FOR me, university offered the best days of my life. Even now, I long for the lie ins, the back-to-back house parties and, thanks to countless cheap societies, trying new things from breakdancing to scuba diving. Meeting people from all around the world and learning so much were also bonuses.

A shame, therefore, that others in the future are in danger of not

being able to afford such a life-changing experience as the Government slashes the budgets of universities and vice chancellors lobby to raise student fees to 6,500 a year to offset their forecast financial shortfall.

Doing so will put off young people – not just the poorest, but those from coping and comfortable families too – experiencing university as the subsequent debt will be too dear.

Accountants calculate that the average student debt would be 32,000 if fees were doubled. Gordon Brown would not be supporting "those on middle and modest incomes" to realise their aspirations, as he has promised, if he gave the green light to fee increases.

If young people are being asked to pay much more, then it is only right that the product they are buying vastly improves. But universities constantly claim they need the money to cover their future funding shortfall and maintain standards, not to improve what is delivered. The Higher Education Funding Council say that "universities need an additional 15-20 per cent funding for current teaching levels to be sustained".

Universities justify the increase in fees because under-graduate degrees are an investment for young people. But young people are being asked to pay nearly double for a qualification that is declining in value and is now less likely to secure employment in a chosen career.

Ministers admit that the graduate premium has been reducing as degree-holding becomes more widespread. Even before the downturn, graduate unemployment had been increasing with only 56 per cent of first degree holders permanently in graduate employment three years after leaving university. During this recession, unemployment has risen fastest for 18 to 24-year-olds with degrees.

More than 70 per cent of unemployed graduates say they cannot get jobs because there is too much competition. There are 48 graduates for every graduate position. To sift through the monolithic crowd of those with bachelors, employers seek applicants who have that little bit extra: unpaid internships and postgraduate qualifications. A postgraduate is 30 per cent more likely to be in employment than someone with a single degree.

Such experiences cost thousands, hurting social mobility as those from affluent homes gain because they are the only ones who can afford to do them. We have even got to the totally unacceptable position of companies charging for internships. Christie's, Five News and Burberry are selling internships for thousands of pounds at auctions.

Frankly, it is absurd for universities to charge double for a qualification that holds considerably less value in today's employment market. Even if you are less utilitarian about university, valuing education for its own sake rather than its affect on employment, these institutions have not laid out how they would improve the student experience doubly to justify a doubling in fees.

But, of course, this is not to deny that university still leads to better employment outcomes, although its value is declining. This is because most employers require a degree as a minimum requirement.

However, university life – other than just the degree – is proven to provide the advantages needed to succeed in the labour market. The cheap societies and sports clubs allow young people to beef up their CV with extra-curricular activities to stand out in a crowded labour market.

You will hear many students say there is a decision to be made between getting a first-class degree without a social life and getting a 2:1 and doing all the fun stuff like editing the student newspaper or running the photography club. Well, that was the excuse for those of us who got a 2:1. But it does show an understanding among students that the degree alone is just not enough.

These societies and sports clubs, funded by student unions, allow people to form social networks which are essential for accessing industries which rely on contacts to get internships and jobs. One in four of all graduates only got a job because of a friend at university.

Let's be honest, if the skills and contacts acquired from societies

and sports clubs offered by the union are more critical in getting a job than a degree – provided by the university – than the union has

more justification in raising its small fee for students than the university has.

As universities and the Government wrestle over who should pay for the funding gap in this vital sector, it is not fair for them to simply come to the solution of putting the onus on students.

There is no valid reason why students should have to pay more for university.

Ryan Shorthouse is a writer on social affairs and spokesman for Bright Blue, an organisation which campaigns for progressive Conservative policies.

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