A Ridiculous University Challenge

While the prospect of 20 new campuses to encourage more people to enter higher education sounds a nice idea on paper, the implications for those of us at other universities definitely needs more serious thought

20 new universities will cost us in terms of money and degree value

We don’t have enough universities. Or so the government thinks. Proposals last week were announced to build 20 new campuses across the UK, with towns lining up to bid for the chance to have their very own university. It is a “New University Challenge”. It will “open the chance of higher education to people who would not normally consider doing a degree”. It will “maintain the global competitiveness of the UK economy”. It is also sheer madness.

On the surface, it looks fantastic. Furthermore, it is not a new policy: since 2003 17 new university campuses have been built around the UK. What we are about to embark on is the acceleration of an existing policy. There are, however, two key problems with the next phase of the project.

Firstly, there is the issue of “degree devaluation”. Let me give an example. In Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Gondoliers’, a brilliant idea is conceived whereby everybody is elevated to a higher status within society. The servant formerly known as ‘The Cook’, becomes ‘The Lord High Cook’, the ‘Footman’ becomes ‘The Lord High Footman’ and so on. The result is painfully obvious. By elevating every character to the status of ‘The Lord High somebody’, they instantly devalue the title ‘The Lord High’, making it completely worthless.

And so it is with degrees. Under the Government’s targets, almost 50% of young people will have received higher education under this scheme. As a direct result, being a graduate is no longer a strong factor on your CV. What counts is which university you went to. All this does is increase the gap between top and bottom universities and encourage elitism from establishments like the Russell group and Oxbridge. To use a cliché, the top universities remain big fish in an ever-expanding pond.

The second problem with the proposal is the significant matter of funding. The total project will cost an estimated £150m. Assuming that this figure is accurate and doesn’t increase several times as the project unfolds, there is still the issue of where the money is going to come from.

The source of it is worrying. Apparently the government will take the money at the deficit of “second chances” and the subsidising of second undergraduate degrees. They have already cut £100m from the budget for helping adults to return to college or university after a period of work. This is more concerning, given that it comes at the same time as university drop-out rates reach a high of 22% over the space of a degree, with some universities experiencing an 18% drop-out rate in the first year.

The scope for ‘second chances’ has been cut dramatically, and this could lead to many students discovering that they have blown their only chance at university. Given that the reason many choose to leave is a lack of value for money within the degree, they are hardly going to be coaxed back by the government’s un-subsidised fees for a second chance at an undergraduate degree.

In short, while the prospect of 20 new campuses to encourage more people to enter higher education sounds a nice idea on paper, the implications for those of us at other universities definitely need more serious thought.

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