Is a university education losing its value?

Have we come to a higher education turning point? Are we entering a phase of history in which a university degree is going to be seen as a waste of time, effort and money?

Why am I asking? Well, for much of the period since the Second World War a key consensus in most of the world has been the belief in the value and efficacy of education, including higher education. Accompanying this consensus has been a commitment to increasing the proportion of the population to benefit from a university degree, to the point where everybody, regardless of background, means, gender or ethnic origin, would be entitled to enter higher education provided only that they had the ability and talent.

However, this consensus has come under pressure, as a growing number of people question the case for it. Partly this has been prompted by talk of an ‘education bubble’ (the notion that the personal cost of higher education is not recovered during the subsequent career facilitated by it).

Yesterday’s Observer newspaper carried a personal statement by columnist Philippa Young in which she explained why she abandoned an Oxford MSc programme after just one week, having concluded that it would not provide her with any benefits. Perhaps the two reasons that should concern us most in her reasoning are that universities are obsessed with formal tradition at the expense of pedagogy, and that they lack a capacity for cross-disciplinary intellectual inquiry.

Maybe one might want to argue that these problems are specific to Oxford. But we may now be coming to a phase in which more generally the growing loss of confidence in the ‘respectable’ institutions of society is also infecting attitudes to universities. In part this may be due to a lack of understanding as to what universities are for, and what those who enter them should expect to get from them.

Not everyone hoping for a fulfilling life and a successful career needs to go to university. Equally not everyone studying for a degree will need to be doing so for the same reason. Even within Oxford University not every programme will have the same objectives. The academy is now much more diverse than it was in the past. But this needs to be explained and understood much better. It is time to re-establish a social contract between society and its universities. Without it we may find a growing consensus supporting the idea of an education bubble. And we cannot afford that.

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14 Comments on “Is a university education losing its value?”


  1. I can’t help wondering if it’s reasonable to treat a restricted entry and very expensive graduate program at Oxford as a bellwether for the rest of higher education, or even as a particularly useful way of understanding the scale and fragility of the bigger bubble.

    There’s a very big difference between deciding not to pursue a degree of this kind despite having the intellectual and financial means to do so, and the courage it takes to back out of a first degree because you’ve recognised that you lack the resources to keep going in any kind of good way. This is the much more troubling story: students who desperately want to quit, and perhaps should, but don’t. So they graduate with a debt they’ll really struggle to repay, and a sense of self-esteem that’s lower than when they began.

    In terms of student loans, this is then what turns something that’s simply been overvalued into toxic debt. But we don’t worry so much about the human cost until it shows up as attrition data—and we should, if universities are to mean anything at all.


    • Well, an Oxford Masters programme might not be typical, but if people question its benefits there is probably less hope still for any others.


      • I agree with Music. For exceptional individuals *entry* to an elite institution can signal something important, but actually doing the programme isn’t necessarily worthwhile. That wasn’t a new insight when Bill Gates did it at Harvard.

        Those of us in les stellar parts of the sector are providing wholly different benefits to wholly different people, so the analogy doesn’t hold.


        • I completely agree. Some exceptional individuals don’t need university to achieve something important, but often, they come with a huge amount of social capital.

          Not only does Philippa Young have this capital, but she is not turning her back on education. She already HAS a degree and an extremely prestigious year’s worth of work experience behind her. In those circumstances, an MA is advantageous but by no means necessary. To compare her situation to (e.g.) that of a first-generation immigrant accessing vocational higher education late in life, or that of a student from an underprivileged area who is the first in their family to finish school, is preposterous. Most students benefit strongly from university, as employment statistics show.


          • Helen, my point was more to do with her reasons for turning her back on the programme, not her action as such. Her reasons, if valid, have a reach beyond her particular circumstances.


          • Response to Ferdinand’s reply below! I agree that Young is an exception, but I think that my point still stands. If voices like hers set the terms of the debate, then the idea of an education bubble will gain headway. Her reasons may be valid, but her powers of reasoning have definitely been trained by higher education. I haven’t studied or taught at Oxbridge, but her criticisms certainly don’t apply to any higher education institution that I’m familiar with.

            The latest statistics still support the fact that, in countries other than the US where college debt has ballooned, higher education is an excellent career investment. Apart from which, I maintain an old-fashioned belief that it expands one’s mind and quality of life in an incalculable way. Both arguments need to be made vigorously.


          • @helen – Well if the value of higher education is “incalculable” that certainly trumps any arguments against it. Nobody should complain that the cost is too high. If you are going to disagree with someone who says that the Return On Investment of higher education is too low, you’re going to have a to do a few sums.


          • @Brian – perfectly fair point. I think an element of the benefits of a university education is incalculable. For the other benefits, there are solid statistics backing up the financial value of a degree. In the UK, 3.5 years after graduation, only 4% of graduates are unemployed (http://www.hesa.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2250&Itemid=286). This is compared to an overall youth unemployment rate in the UK of almost 20% for young people aged 16-21 (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_237932.pdf). For me, the combination of these two figures demonstrates that a degree is an excellent way to guarantee employment in the UK, even in the current economic climate.


      • Respectfully, I think this is a false logic, for the reasons Andrew states below: the issue isn’t the intrinsic value of a particular program or qualification (much as Oxford might like to hope that this is the case), but the perceived value of any program in the particular circumstances in which staying or going has become the question.


  2. Your final statement ” Without it we may find a growing consensus supporting the idea of an education bubble. And we cannot afford that.”, seems to assume that a bubble does not exist.

    I would have thought that, as an academic, you would keep an open mind on this and ask what can we do to determine if this is true or false.

    And if it is true (and I suspect it is), there are two approaches to dealing with it. One is to increase the value of courses and the other is to decrease the cost.

  3. anna notaro Says:

    This discussion about ‘value’ makes me think of what advertisers call ‘intangible value’ , i.e. paying more for branded products etc. (‘branded degrees’ such as the ones awarded by Oxford for ex.?). The worlds of advertising and education are now experiencing such a close proximity! Interesting video at:
    http://philebersole.wordpress.com/2011/02/19/how-advertising-creates-intangible-value/


  4. Couple of different issues getting mixed here, in the article, and the subsequent discussion, I think. I agree with your general thrust, but you might need to go a little deeper. Some thoughts….

    1) Mass university education.
    I’m not convinced that the universities I’ve worked in get all the implications of this change. I think it’s a good thing, but there will be more kids going in who get little out of it, just because there are more kids going in.
    We may need to spend more time forcing students to think about why they want to go to university, and what they hope to get out of it. I occasionally see kids who have no idea why they are spending four years in my university. Some of them are quite happy to have fun for a few years and see what happens next, but some are miserable. We can be quite a costly, and to some extent counter-productive, adolescent day-care service.

    2) Paying for university
    I think we’re getting this wrong. Student loans provide great perverse incentives for students, and all-in-all are probably an expensive con for most of them. From a social policy perspective, the UK are forcing *this* generation of students to pay for the whole show, while previous generations are the beneficiaries of vast public subsidies. Finally the system costs a fortune to run. There are issues with totally free system as well, but at least these minimize the opportunity cost of going to college, which tends to greater social equity in college access.

    3) Value of education
    There is an odd assumption in UK discourse that education primarily benefits individuals. This is plainly not so. The UK, perhaps also the US, and to some extent my own country, Ireland, are all paying the price for crummy, but cheap, public education systems. Far too many children, largely from poor households, are being left behind. I agree that the social benefits of investment are greatest with pre-school education, then primary, secondary, and tertiary, in that order, and that this has implications for public investment.
    However the benefits, to a country, of having lots of college educated people are not small.
    * a country can move to the edge of development, and investment, in selected areas, quite fast, c.f. Singapore and Ireland in the last decade.
    * employers can find technically skilled staff quickly.
    * more people can follow, and take part in, complex social and technical debates
    * etc…

    The university sector does need to wake up. I am constantly amazed by how similar third level is today, and thirty years ago. There are big educational needs largely unmet. The system is still largely geared to full-time students, entering at 18 or so, and staying for 3 to 4 years. If you can’t do 3 years, full time, tough. There is lots of rhetoric about accessibility, lifelong learning, and so on. There is some delivery, but not enough. We do need a new social contract, but we also need to deliver on it!

  5. philebersole Says:

    Here in the United States, we have the following situation.

    1. Young people are told that they need a college degree in order to have an economic future.

    2. Millions of people are in college only to get that credential.

    3. College tuition have grown enormously.

    4. College students are taking on huge amounts of debt, which in the USA cannot be discharged through bankruptcy.

    5. Consequently, except for those who can get a high-paying job immediately upon graduation, college graduates are in a form of lifetime indentured servitude.

    Here is a good article on this subject

    http://nplusonemag.com/bad-education

    Here is an earlier post of mine on this subject

    http://philebersole.wordpress.com/2010/08/05/the-student-loan-train-wreck/

  6. Al Says:

    Ferd,
    You have given a very limited definition of a education bubble.
    To apply what you have said to the Irish property market would mean that the only damage done was to the borrowers?
    Isn’t it alot more complicated?


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