Andrew Tettenborn

Is university good value for money?

Students don’t think so. But that might not be a bad thing

(Photo: iStock)

Opinion polls these days don’t normally raise more then passing interest. But there are always exceptions worth a second look. One such was a YouGov survey out on Wednesday on what people thought about university finance. The big question was whether they believed nearly £30,000 for three years at college was good value for money. Among graduates, many of whom will have paid these fees, the answer (by a margin of well over two to one) was clear. They didn’t. For good measure, nearly half of the graduates polled thought most degrees actually left them worse off overall, against just over a third who thought they led to financial benefits.

Many, no doubt, will draw a predictable conclusion. The government must be shamed or bullied into disowning the decision by the coalition ten years ago to set the present fee (which was about three times the previous one). England should be manoeuvred into following Scotland and Wales, eliminating or greatly cutting tuition fees, and correspondingly increasing its direct subsidy to students and universities.

For the more thoughtful, however, there may be some rather more radical, and indeed hopeful, inferences to be drawn. Whoever has the higher education portfolio next week could do worse than read this survey quite carefully.

Why not quietly take this opportunity to drop talk of scholarship as a commodity and students as consumers of it?

First, despite the comments on value for money, a clear majority actually liked the present system of fees plus loans, more than support through general or (hypothecated graduate) taxation. This is a relief for the government, which would otherwise face enormous cash demands. But it is also good for independent-minded students and academics: universities entirely, or nearly entirely, dependent on taxation are in danger of becoming politically subservient, as has been occasionally pointed out in the case of Scotland.

Secondly, if YouGov is right an intelligent government could, with apparent public approval, not only accept but actually run with the finding that university is not ‘value for money’.

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