Season 2 Episode 6
I swayed from my usual format and dipped my toes into the murky waters of ‘investigative journalism’. Kind of.
Mainly, I just wanted to find out what the hell was actually going on with the university system. I heard many people complain. But I felt like they didn’t actually know what they were talking about. So I sunk a whole 4 days of my life into researching and writing this episode. If you liked this new style, please let me know! And I’ll do more like this.
This video focuses more on interest:
I really like this video from James Jani. It’s a bit more a broad discussion on university benefits and personal development, but there is a lot of overlap and it’s just a really enjoyable, well-produced video to watch.
I don’t believe that the UK education system is designed to promote critical thinking. From the moment we enter nursery and work our way up to our A levels, we are programmed to consume, obey and recite.
We are taught to take the word of the teacher at face value. We are conditioned into becoming passive recipients of knowledge. We are then shaped into young adults who rarely question the conventional wisdom.
The crux of this podcast, and perhaps one of the main themes of my life, is the struggle to overcome this systematic compliance – to question the conventional and practice alternative approaches, to think critically and act differently.
For this week’s episode, I want to lift the lid on the university industry, as for too long we have blindly accepted the status quo that surrounds going and getting a degree.
You have probably heard the rumours. Heard people say that university runs like a competitive business, that students are just customers, and degrees are overvalued products. But, like me, you’ve probably never heard someone explain what that actually means, or given any evidence behind it.
Instead, you probably just left university, and slowly realised that you’ve entered into a woefully saturated job market, with the same overpriced certificate as everyone else, and a graduation picture on your bookshelf that smiles back at you as you trawl through an endless stream of job rejections.
And so this week, I took a deep dive into the industry, to find out what truth lies in these claims. To see if there really is something fishy and broken going on with the higher education system.
As it turns out, there is.
In this episode, I examine how university has fundamentally changed over the years, and how it has evolved from the well-meaning pursuit of academia, into a corporate money making machine that turns your dreams and aspirations into profit.
This is a story of good intentions and bad regulation.
This is Season 2 – Episode 6 – of Tim Quit His Job, the show that follows me – a regular guy in his mid-20s – on my adventures into the unknown, as I quit my job, start a business, and try to figure out life along the way. It’s a show for people who are finding their place in the world, but want to do things a little differently along the way. If you enjoy the podcast, then come and find out more about it at timquithisjob.com. As always, the show is produced and instrumentalised by the energetic and enthusiastic Henri Victorious – you’ll find links to his music on the website. In the meantime, enjoy the show.
I love complaining about university. I graduated two years ago, and it is still one of my favourite past times. It also happens to be one of the most painfully privileged middle class things about me. I mean, what’s more snobbish and more entitled than complaining about getting a world class education that costs nothing up front?
It’s clear that people like me have nothing better to do.
That being said, if you have also been through the university system and felt like something was a bit wrong. If you thought that the university barely invested any resources into your course. Or that they didn’t put much effort into the content. If you feel like they stripped the timetable back to the bare minimum. If you ever wondered whether they were just using you to collect profit. If you feel like something was a bit… Dishonest. Maybe even corrupt. But you never really knew what, or why, then keep listening, because over the next few minutes, you might find out.
University is sold to us as the essential step, the final piece of the puzzle on our journeys into adulthood. It comes perfectly packaged and presented. Our parents tell us that by going we can make the family proud, get the job we want, and earn more money. Teams of university ambassadors parade into our classes throughout secondary school and 6th form, telling us how great it is: how it will enhance our social lives and transform our career prospects. When we ask about fees, they will skilfully parry the question away with classic lines about student loan payback.
‘You won’t pay anything back until you’re earning a lot of money anyway’
‘You won’t even notice it’s there’
‘It’s low interest so you don’t need to worry’.
And the thing is, they are mostly telling the truth. University is, for the most part, absolutely amazing. I had a blast. And it did change my life, open many doors and give me a crazy social life for three years.
If I went back in time and had to choose, I’d do it again.
But something is still not right. I feel like there is something we are not being told about it… Perhaps it is something that we will only realise after we have graduated. When we finally enter the job market, then look back and get a sour taste in our mouth.
How many of us now look back at some of the promises we were sold about university, and wonder if they didn’t just slightly exaggerate the claims.
The truth is, the entire UK university system is broken. And it’s getting worse.
Let’s preface the story with you, the British public. You guys just love education. Can’t get enough of it. In nearly every election, concerns about education are right up there at the top of the polls, alongside racism and trains.
It seems like every Tom, Dick and Harry has some an opinion on the state of this country’s education, and that opinion usually revolves around us knowing best!
Politicians are not stupid. They know we love education, so they play into it massively. I mean, what’s the one thing that all of us, left, right, black or white love? Education. So they promise more of it at elections and try to deliver big overhauls and changes during their time in power, so that we remember them as the pioneers who improved our schools.
What a great thing to sell to the public, what a clever way to cross the party line and get everyone to fall in love with you – ‘give the people what they want’.
As universities make up a key part of the education system, the higher education system, they are thrown into this melee, all-to-often becoming a political football that gets booted around constantly on either side of parliament. There isn’t a single party that hasn’t used University in some way to wrangle our votes.
And the thing is, it works. This is important, it is the backdrop to our story.
Because we love education. But our love for it, blinds us to its flaws. Right from when we aren’t taught to be critical, to when we overlook the holes in the university system as a result.
Our story starts with Tony Blair in 1992, sitting in the houses of parliament, watching then Conservative Prime Minister – John Major – skilfully use the public love of education to make himself look noble.
At this point in time, there were the universities that offered degrees, and the polytechnics, that offered vocational courses.
John Major and his party realised that they could become public heroes by increasing the number of degree-level graduates in one fell swoop. How? By passing an act that allows the polytechnics to become universities and offer degrees. It was so easy! No new buildings, no enormous cost, just change the name on the building, write a lesson plan and boom – you’ve got a whole heap of new graduates, and whole load of public support.
Tony Blair was watching from the stands, listening, learning.
Fast forward 5 years and our old pal Tony Blair is now campaigning to win the general election and hoping to become prime minister. He stands in front of large crowds and says his three main priorities are ‘education, education, education’. Why, well we already know, don’t we, but in the same speech Tony Blair reminds us.
‘Because nothing matters more to the parents of Britain, or to the future prosperity of the country’
As a result, him and his team come up with a public pledge to get half of all young people into university. Now, this sounds great! What a noble guy! If I didn’t know that he would go on to destabilise the Middle East, causing untold misery to millions for the next 20 years, I’d go back in time and give him a pat on the back.
This move is a big hit with public. We love education, we love university; we love aspiration, personal development and social mobility – all things that university represents. So more of it can only be better. Right?
To understand why, we need to talk money.
Up until 1998, university was funded in one way, the taxpayer. The government would give each university a certain amount of money per person who attended, in order to cover the university’s costs. The amount of money they gave depended on what type of course they were doing, because certain courses cost more to teach than others. For example, the clinical courses such as dentistry and medicine got the most, then Lab work courses, then IT courses after that, then Partial-lab courses, and finally, classroom-based courses, which understandably got the least. They’re cheap!
As universities became more and more popular, the government realised that it could no longer afford to foot the bill for every student straight up. I mean, it’s understandable, it’s a lot of money to cough up. So they introduced tuition fees of up to £1,000 a year and set up the student finance system, where prospective students could get loans from the government so that they could afford to go. So in a way, the taxpayer did still fund it, but the burden was on the student to pay that money back over the course of their career.
Now, at this time, there was demand in the jobs market for more skilled labour, so it wasn’t just a good move politically, but moving into the digital age, the UK did need to keep up.
However, people knew the dangers of overindulging in our love for education. They were aware that we needed to be cautious about the numbers we let in to university, as there was a real risk of the value of the degree dropping and the government not being able to cope with the cost, so there remained a cap in place, on the number of students universities were allowed to let in.
But with Tony Blair moving ahead on his promise, university attendance kept rising towards this cap.
This created further budgetary issues for the government, they didn’t want to keep paying such a high proportion of university costs. I mean you can’t blame them, they were spending all our money bombing Baghdad and pretending to look for Bin Laden.
So the fees upped again to £3 grand a year, putting more of the cost on the student, and less on the government directly.
Guess what, more students kept on going, which at this point may have been getting questionable, we may have been approaching the actual level of demand, I’m honestly not sure, but politicians – still very aware of our soft spot for education – were keen to keep pushing the agenda to get more students to attend.
But they didn’t want to pay for it! God no. There was so many of us at that point and we had just entered a recession! We were being screwed by the credit crunch and just starting to learn the meaning of the word – austerity.
So what did they do?
They did two things that I believe set the ball in motion for the higher education system to spiral out of control.
They upped the fees again, and removed the cap on university placements.
How did this set the wheels in motion?
They changed the fees from £3k a year, to between £6k and £9k a year. The idea was that unis would price their degrees based on how much it actually cost to deliver them. They expected the average price to be £7.5k a year, with only a few courses charging the full nine. But oh how wrong they were.
They didn’t actually put anything concrete in place to regulate the universities. They just assumed, perhaps because of blind belief in the free market, perhaps just because of incompetence, or perhaps because of something fishy going on behind closed doors, that universities would fairly price their courses.
MISTKE And the main reason comes from the fact that as they upped the fees, they lowered how much the government would contribute directly, so that the universities wouldn’t get more money for delivering the same courses. This is what they did the last couple of times they raised the fees, they swung the see-saw further in the direction of the students, and lessened the government contribution. But they got the balance wrong this time. Who knows how or why they got it so wrong, but it ended up meaning that if a student paid £9k a year, then the universities would actually make massive profits on every student who attended.
The 9k tuition fee meant that for every IT based course, a university ended up getting 10% more money per student enrolled, for every course that partially takes place in a lab, the university got 13% more money, and the kicker: for every classroom based course, the university got 29% more money.
Overnight, they got an additional 29% surplus – or profit if you want to be cynical – for every student that does a desk based subject. You want to know how many subjects are desk-based. Loads! That’s how school works! You sit at a bloody desk most of the time! Perhaps this is why there seems to be a growth in the number of pointless classroom based university degrees – the university is creating them out of thin air to make money!
This shit-show was woefully compounded by the fact that they lifted the cap on admissions. Now that universities could make eye-boggling amounts of money per student, and they could enrol as many as they wanted, the race was on. The cat was out of the bag, Frankenstein’s monster had been brought to life and was about to start reigning terror on the peaceful villagers below.
The universities became marketing machines, doing anything and everything to get students to attend. Students were no longer adorable 18 year olds with big dreams and the whole word ahead of them, they were walking dollar signs. They became consumers, customers, and the universities were trying to get them hooked on their product – a degree.
Each university began injecting millions and millions of pounds into their marketing and outreach. It became an admissions arms race, a cutthroat competition, with universities fighting tooth and nail to get in front of the students first.
They would even market to school kids as young as 11 years old, to begin the slow process of brainwashing them into attending their university one day.
I know, because I was there. Whilst I was at university, I worked in the marketing and outreach team. I saw first-hand the hustle, grind and investment that went into trying to get new pupils – ‘bums on seats’ as they used to say.
I used to go in and give the occasional talk at secondary schools, telling young kids why university is so great – but our uni in particular.
As people flooded in and the number of students rose exponentially, so did the university’s bank accounts. They were now able to splash out on huge new buildings, raise professor’s salaries to keep them on their side, and pay juicy corporate rates to those at the top of the food chain.
If there was any incentive to charge a fair rate for a course. Say, £6 or £7k per year, that was gone. Universities wanted to look prestigious, they didn’t want to look cheap out of fear that students would think them inferior. So they followed Oxford and Cambridge in sticking to the maximum amount, and keeping the enormous profits as a bonus.
The government had created a flawed system that incentivised the universities to get together and agree to charge the maximum rate, no matter what. The universities essentially colluded to set the price of a degree at above the real and fair rate. Which, by the way, was dropping fast as the supply of graduates began to outstrip the job market’s demand.
The universities were clearly price-setting, which is an anti-competitive practice that is illegal under British law, because it goes against the free market and fundamentally screws over the consumer. We have a word in English for a group of people or organisations who get together to set a fixed price.
No what it is?
That’s right, this shit just turned Breaking Bad.
Are you still with me? Because we are moving on to the final part of this story.
The reason that degree feels more like a worthless piece of paper than a ticket into a good career. The reason many of us leave uni and look back with a sour taste in our mouths:
The final squeeze of the Hangman’s Noose.
Since 2010, the number of students leaving university with a first has increased by 80%. This is absolutely staggering. This year, 79% of students are expected to leave university with a first or a 2:1.
Before you ask, no. People haven’t gotten smarter, they actually checked to see if that was the case and they found that IQ stayed the same.
What happened, was that in this cutthroat dog-eat-dog environment that the government created, the university league-table rose to become of fundamental importance when attracting students.
You know what I’m talking about don’t you.
How many times did you hear league tables mentioned when you were thinking about which uni to go to. Or which course to choose. You’d look at the league tables to help you decide.
The higher up the tables a uni can get, the more students will want to go, and the more money it will make.
These league tables are based on numerous different metrics that determine how high a university places, but there are two in particular that have led to a dramatic rise in the average grade a student graduates with: student satisfaction and employability.
Universities found that the more students they gave higher grades to, the better they’d do on the student satisfaction surveys, and the higher they could crawl up the leader boards. They also found that if they gave their students higher grades, graduates would have a slight edge in the job market, and the employability rating of a university – calculated from how many students find employment or further education within 6 months of graduating – would also rise.
The unis now found that if they inflated the grades, they’d rise up the leaderboards, and get more students attending as a result. Higher grades equalled more money.
The effects of this grade inflation, the exponential rise in graduate numbers, and the unfair price setting, are the reasons why you now look at your degree certificate and wonder whether it was worth it.
It is the reason why the job market has been so difficult for you to enter.
It is why your degree has been so massively devalued; supply has now completely outstripped the demand, pushing down the value of a degree enormously, all whilst tuition fees are still increasing.
What started out as good intentions: A love for education and the noble aim of helping more people in this country reach their full potential, have been warped into a twisted, corrupt and dysfunctional system.
Through poor regulation, short-term thinking and political self-interest, the university system in this country has created a bubble that I believe is soon to burst, as people realise that degrees are no longer worth it, and that we may better use that time and money to stand out from the crowd in different ways.
Or, perhaps we are too far gone, and we cannot turn back the clock. The system appears to be promoting and replicating its flaws. It seem that the proliferation of the university degree has created its own necessity. Perhaps it’ll now become almost mandatory for someone to get a degree, even if they will never, ever use it. Getting themselves into a huge amount of debt, sacrificing three years of their life, just to step onto the lowest rung of the job ladder. What a sorry state of affairs. What an inefficient system. What a way to kill off the genuine desire for aspiration and education.
At the start of this episode, I spoke of how important it is to look at things critically.
Examining universities and their wider system in this way should not make us despair. We shouldn’t overreact and campaign to abolish or tear down the institutions. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here. But it should help to inform us, so that we can make better choices about out our own lives, and our politicians can make better decisions about how the system functions.
Because if we don’t look at things critically and objectively like this, if we don’t go beyond taking things at face value, if we don’t sometimes choose to stand up to conventional wisdom, then we overlook the flaws, are doomed to keep making the same mistakes.
I hope you found this helpful, thanks for listening.