Friday 14 August 2020 12:11 pm

University is still the safest bet to a good life

Ryan Shorthouse is the founder and chief executive of Bright Blue.

Every year without fail, school leavers and their parents have to hear the boasting, masquerading as reassurance, of some of society’s success stories. 

Here’s Jeremy Clarkson: “I got a C and 2 Us and I’m currently building a large house with far reaching views of the Cotswolds.” Lord Sugar goes further: “University is a waste of time.”

They’re wrong. Good grades and going to university do matter. A lot. Of course there are exceptions, but they’re rare; those with higher educational qualifications enjoy significantly greater career opportunities and rewards. Examining those who attended university in the mid noughties, the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently forecast male graduate lifetime earnings—net even of tax and student loan repayments—were on average £130,000 higher than non-graduates with the same credentials. 

So this year’s flawed and confusing A-level grading system, only introduced because Coronavirus cancelled exams, has life-changing consequences. The grade moderation of teacher assessments by the regulator Ofqual is understandable: relying on those assessments alone, as Scotland has now done, would have been provably inflationary, making the process both unfair to other cohorts and utterly discredited. 

Read more: With five months to prepare, the A-level results fiasco is a scandal of the government’s own making

But this moderation has led to the disproportionate marking down of disadvantaged students, and a big jump in the awarding of top grades to those from independent schools. The government allowing those who feel aggrieved, and there will be many, to take later exams or rely on mock marks, will make things even more imprecise and messy.

This year, the government has an unenviable and impossible task of trying to make the system fair to each individual and across the whole cohort. In truth, there is no perfect system to capture pupil attainment and aptitude, not even in normal times with the final, high-stakes exam. Especially but not exclusively this year, universities and employers need to be imaginative and use other measures and metrics to judge applicants. As a prompt, even in decades to come, this unlucky cohort should write “Covid” next to their grades on any CV.

This government could still do better, though. It should immediately lift the temporary cap on the number of students that universities can admit, originally reinstated this year to prevent institutions from granting unconditional and lenient offers to shore up their finances as a result of the anticipated plummeting of applicants, especially from overseas. Better respected universities could have poached from others their usual pool of students, ruining their finances. 

Well, UCAS figures just released show that record numbers of 18-year-olds from the UK have been accepted onto university courses, and places granted to international applicants have remained strong, albeit somewhat reduced for those from inside the EU. 

Read more: Labour call for government U-turn on A-levels ‘fiasco’

Allowing universities to expand their intakes would increase the probability of those disadvantaged pupils who haven’t got their anticipated grades to, through clearing, secure a place at a good university. Letting more young people move on to the next stage of their lives as soon as possible, rather than stressing about an exam or getting into a fight about their marks, would be preferable, surely.

Also, we should expand university places, now and in the future. The current education secretary last month, however, criticised the ambition of the Blair government for at least 50 per cent of young adults to participate in higher education, instead arguing that greater focus and esteem should be granted to vocational and technical education.

But presenting this binary between higher and vocational education is misjudged. More than 40 per cent of university courses are technical, professional or vocational. It goes against global trends, too: other countries already have much higher proportions of under 35s with degrees—Canada at 61 per cent and Japan at 60 per cent. The ideal would be more people participating in both university and work-based training at different stages in their working lives, benefiting from the unique skills and opportunities each offer to careers. 

To be fair, there are a small proportion of mostly male graduates from certain universities and in certain subjects such as English and the creative arts who, in terms of salary, would have been better not attending university. However, there is actually no significant loss in investment for them, as salaries are so low that they repay no or very low amounts of their student loan back. These graduates may feel there has been an opportunity loss, but there are demonstrable non-financial benefits to attending too. Regardless, these poor labour market returns are an argument for policymakers improving the quality of higher education, not restricting access to it.

With the labour market contracting rapidly, the Class of Covid need all the help and encouragement they can get to attend university, which is still the safest route to a good life.

Read more: Our university sector was broken long before Covid-19

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.