Sorry, minister, but there is much to lament about higher education

Just what might student class action mean for universities? (Stock image)

There ought to be little surprise that the universities minister brushed off criticism that not everything is as it should be in the world of UK higher education.

The message Sam Gyimah gave readers of the Canterbury Journal during his visit to the city this week was that everyone who wants to go to university should, that all the degrees are worthy and that students needn’t worry about a lifetime of debt because after completing their studies they will be earning fantastic amounts of cash.

Mr Gyimah, 41, is what you would call a success of the university system. He studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, was the Oxford Union’s president and then got a job as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs.

He was elected to Parliament in 2010 where he is now making his way up the greasy pole.

His experience, therefore, will be unlike more than 99% of the rest of the UK population which passes through a university.

Universities minister Sam Gyimah

But that should not blind him to the very obvious issues connected to the higher education system and how it operates.

It should not blind him to the fact that more people going into university means fewer finding jobs which match their qualifications.

And it should not blind him to the fact that for those unsuited to university, three or fours years of study delays their entry into the labour force and can instead retard their professional development.

The depressing truth, however, is that the responses he gave during his interview at Canterbury Christ Church University do not constitute an accurate assessment of the state of higher education.

Here we examine what Mr Gyimah said and consider what he might have said.

What Mr Gyimah said: 

Certainly in terms of Canterbury with local people saying there are too many students around, it’s important to understand that these issues of town and gown exist in almost every university city that you go to. Yes, some people may find some students’ behaviour difficult at times. But as universities grow, they provide employment and help stimulate the local economy.

What he might have said:

I can see how in a city the size of Canterbury the issue of a swelling student population is a concern. While there are clear economic benefits, there are also social costs and universities must consider the impact their growth has upon their neighbours.

Mr Gyimah visited Christ Church on Thursday

What Mr Gyimah said: 

Doing the right degree can increase one’s lifetime earnings.

What he might have said:

Doing the right degree can increase one’s lifetime earnings. But for many it will have absolutely no effect on their future earnings because there are simply not enough graduate jobs to go around. For those unsuited to university, they could instead spend three or four years mastering trades or skills which will reap huge rewards in the future.

What Mr Gyimah said: 

Anyone who can and wants to [go to university] should. One of the consequences of the government lifting the cap on student numbers is that we now have more economically disadvantaged students than ever before.

What he might have said:

Anyone who can and wants to should go to university providing they meet clear academic standards for entry. We recognise that universities are not vehicles of social engineering and that they are centres of academic and intellectual excellence. That’s why university is not for everyone.

What Mr Gyimah said: 

The important thing about a university degree is that a good degree is worth the investment and what we want to do is create a situation where they are better informed about what degree suits their investment.

What he might have said:

A good degree is worth the time and the financial investment. Unfortunately, with the expansion of universities too many degrees are not worth it. The value of a mickey mouse degree from a third rate institution is nil.

Alas Mr Gyimah is minister in Her Majesty’s government and instead of frankness we got platitudes. Everything, apparently, in the higher education garden smells of roses…

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