- This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Polly Mackenzie, Chief Social Purpose Officer at the University of the Arts, London (UAL).
Ahead of the government’s long-anticipated higher education reforms, knives are out for “low value” university courses with supposedly little economic return. Degrees are expensive and students are right to worry about careers. But viewing university through a purely economic lens underestimates its value not only to the people who go there but to society as a whole.
“In today’s world, there is no such thing as too clever,” declared Tony Blair in 1999, “the more you know, the further you’ll go”. His government set a target for half of young people to go to university. It was finally met in 2019. Once considered an indisputable good, today the value of a university education is more contested. This is largely down to tuition fees, a policy some once-enthusiastic backers now think was a mistake.
Last week Sam Freedman did a good job of explaining how unexpected incentives in the system led to the current squeeze in which fees are uncomfortably high for students yet too low for cash-strapped, inflation-hit universities. He and I made the same errors of judgement when we worked together on this policy in 2010. My regrets go one step further, as I see the policy’s fundamental error, in hindsight, was one as much of narrative as of cash. It is an error — or double error — that continues to skew how we think and talk about higher education in this country. And is at the root of the government’s hugely damaging assault on the arts and humanities.
The rationale behind increasing tuition fees was essentially this: people financially gain from degrees, therefore they should pay for them. This is based on two misguided ideas. First, it defines the value of higher education in purely financial terms. Second, it assumes the value of a degree accrues only to the person receiving it.
The first is misguided because of the near endless ways university improves a person’s life. The pleasure of learning and meeting like-minded people. The cultivation of resilience, independence and a capacity for critical thought. The skills and knowledge nurtured at university help joy echo through a lifetime. Perhaps none of these hard-to-measure things are worth the price of admission on their own. But together they add up to something enormously powerful. I bet most graduates of university would agree, no matter what they studied.
The second assumption is wrong because of the many ways university leavers add to the wellbeing of society. Take graduates from the University of the Arts London, where I work. Sculptors, painters, film producers, performers, designers; graduates like these tend not to be highly paid — early on, at least — but they make life more interesting and enjoyable for millions. They fill art galleries and museums, organise festivals, make film and TV programmes, set trends in fashion, and design our city centres. In short, they create the culture that fills our lives with beauty, value and meaning.
Metrics for gauging the value of degrees do not account for such things. The government uses two main tools: the graduate outcomes survey, which students complete fifteen months after leaving university; and modelling based on lifetime predicted earnings. Blunt instruments like these validate the government’s view of university as a narrow, instrumental good. They encourage the dismal ranking of academic subjects based on “economic return” and endless cutbacks to arts and humanities.
Such bean-counting risk aversion is antithetical to the creative, innovative economy this government claims to be striving for. You can’t control what education systems produce and you can’t know where the next breakthroughs will come. The “low value” courses of today may have a higher value tomorrow and vice versa — past performance is no guarantee of future returns. To build a truly innovative economy, politicians must be open minded about the potential of a broad range of disciplines. After all, one Jony Ive — iPhone creator and Newcastle Polytechnic alumnus — is worth 10,000 management consultants.
That said, creative industries are already making a big material contribution. Take television, theatre, architecture and fashion. Together, these don’t only constitute the foundation of culture, they also add an enormous amount to the economy. The government’s own recently published “vision” for the sector noted these add £108 billion a year and employ 2.3 million. Over the past decade creative industries grew at 1.5 times the rate of the broader British economy.
But these figures are besides the most important point which is that wellbeing is enhanced by an abundance of creativity in society. Consider the graduates working as curators in North-Eastern towns. Or regional theatre directors in cities in the midlands. These jobs do not command big salaries and the people who do them may never repay their student loans. But they bring life, light and opportunity to their communities, linking them to the world outside. Such people are comparable to university graduates who go into nursing or social work. Salaries in these professions do not reflect their importance to national wellbeing.
And wellbeing really is everything. There is no point in having a strong economy if it does not result in better, happier lives. It’s why it is so irrational to sacrifice the real, widely experienced joys of Britain’s creative scene on the altar of some imagined, hypothetical economic boost.
Which leads me to one of the best- and best-known articulations of the limitations of economic statistics, from politics major Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Gross National Product, he said, encompasses endless unpleasant things from jails to cigarette advertising to violent television programmes. Yet it captures “neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion”. GNP measures, in other words, “everything except that which makes life worthwhile”.
Kennedy’s words are relevant to the UK education debate and not only because they demonstrate the wisdom and rhetorical flair that study of humanities can instil. Some things are hard to measure. That doesn’t mean they have no value. Creative industries contribute an enormous amount to the wellbeing of society, and most successful nations understand this. This government, though, seems intent on making Britain the exception. Making national wellbeing its aim would, by contrast, not only improve our universities, but the lives of everyone in Britain.