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Friday, 28 September, 2001, 23:08 GMT 00:08 UK
University: Is it a good deal?
students at a seminar
Will the effort have been worthwhile?
BBC education correspondent Mike Baker considers whether today's students will come to see their university education as a good investment.

Prince William, as we know, is rarely alone. By the end of this week, he will have been joined by almost 350,000 other "freshers" arriving at Britain's universities for those first daunting days of undergraduate life.

However Royal watchers need read no further. Unlike a certain television production company, this column intends to leave Prince William alone and put the spotlight on ordinary students.

Instead it seems an opportune moment to ask what lies ahead for students in Britain's fast-changing universities: will the experiences, the quality of education and the job prospects of today's undergraduates be as good as those of their parent's generation?

Twenty years ago just one young person in eight entered higher education. Today more than one in three do so.

Over the same period the number of undergraduate degrees awarded in Britain has risen from just over 100,000 a year to over 260,000.

Over 70% of the children of professional classes now attend university compared to just 13% of children of unskilled workers

Mike Baker
That does not mean that the quality of a degree is necessarily any the less but it does mean a university degree is no longer as distinctive a qualification as it once was.

But the economy has also moved on and the demand for graduates has grown at the same time as the supply has increased.

If the growth over the past 20 years has been rapid, the expansion since the first big explosion of university growth in the mid-1960s is even more dramatic. In 1965 just over 400,000 students studied at British universities. Today the figure is 1.8 million.

In the 1960s, undergraduates were predominantly white, male, under-21 year-olds who studied full-time. Today 55% of them are women. Indeed female undergraduates overtook men 5 years ago and have continued to pull ahead ever since.

Although the under-21 age group still provides the majority of first degree students, mature entrants are now a significant minority, totalling almost one in five of this year's freshers. More than a quarter of all students now study part-time.

In short, we have seen a shift from a university system serving a small elite to one that is now closer to the mass university systems of the USA or many continental European countries.

At the same time, the university experience has gone from a five-star, luxury design to a mass-transit economy model.

Nothing reveals this more starkly than the amount of public money spent per student. This has fallen from over 7,500 just over a decade ago to around 4,800 today.

Student protest over tuition fees
Students have often protested about tuition fees
The result is that most of today's students receive no grants to cover living costs, about half must pay something towards their tuition costs, and all face more crowded lecture theatres and less individual time with staff.

But before despair engulfs anyone starting out on courses, let me give you some good news too. It may cost you more, and you will probably graduate with 10,000 or more of personal debt, but your degree should enhance your job prospects and your earning capacity.

OECD figures suggest that the earning premium of British graduates, relative to non-graduates, is amongst the highest in the world.

The figures suggest that graduates aged between 30 and 44 earn 76% more than non-graduates in the UK.

And even those whose parental income is high enough to require them to pay fees are, in one sense, getting a good deal.

Tuition fee

The current full tuition fee of 1,075 represents only a quarter of the average cost of an undergraduate degree course.

Nevertheless, one effect of the growing cost of getting a degree has been to boost the popularity of vocational degree courses.

The top five courses (graded by undergraduates entering in 2001) are: Business and Management Studies, Computer Science, Law, Psychology, and Primary Education. You have to go to sixth place to find the first purely academic subject, namely English.

However, there is one important way in which universities have not changed as much as many expected: they remain largely the preserve of the sons and daughters of the middle-classes.

Over 70% of the children of professional classes now attend university compared to just 13% of children of unskilled workers.

More than one in three enter higher education
University leaders blame the schools for this, arguing that they can only admit young people with suitable qualifications.

However some individual universities are trying to do more than just blame others. Newcastle University, for example, runs a scheme with local schools and colleges on Tyneside.

It hosts summer schools with preference given to students from poorer neighbourhoods.

It is hoped those who participate will gain good enough A-level grades to get into the university as undergraduates but, crucially, they are also given extra credits if they complete the summer school courses. These credits can then be used to boost their A-level points scores.

As this amounts to positive discrimination in favour of those from poorer homes, some have criticised this as "dumbing down" university entrance.

Yet this is the sort of imaginative scheme which other universities might follow if they wish to extend the benefits of university education to a wider range of young people.

Indeed Newcastle is probably ahead of the game as all universities will have to be more flexible over their admissions criteria if the government is to meet its target of 50% of under-30s experiencing higher education by the end of this decade.

A report being prepared for university leaders is expected to point out that the pool of school-leavers with A-levels will not be big enough to fill continuing university expansion.

Instead, universities will have to recruit those with other qualifications such as vocational qualifications or a good record of work or training experience.

Foundation degrees

The other big change in universities today is the arrival of the new, two-year Foundation Degrees which are intended to deliver further expansion in higher education.

The model is based on the USA where many students take two-year degrees at community colleges. Many then go on to take the full four-year bachelor's degree.

Amid all this change the really pressing issue for students is whether some leading universities will get their way and be allowed to introduce "top-up fees" (or market-rate fees, as they prefer to call them) for more prestigious degree courses.

The top university leaders say the change is needed if they are to remain competitive with wealthier, especially American, universities.

These are bumpy, transitional years for higher education as the system attempts to adapt from serving 15% of young people to 50%.

Students will continue to wonder whether they are getting a good deal, but future employment patterns suggest they are almost certainly better off investing in a degree.

Moreover by the time today's undergraduates are parents themselves they will probably look back nostalgically to the days when getting a university degree was cheap and graduating still helped you stand out from the crowd.

Mike Baker cannot always answer individual queries but the education team welcomes your comments at:
See also:

25 Jul 01 | Education
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11 May 01 | Education
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