In defence of “rip-off” degrees and those who study them

From the Prime Minister who last year diagnosed universities as places “full of people who don’t vote for us” came this week an entirely unrelated announcement that, apparently, too many people are going to university and not earning enough when they graduate. Students are, in Sunak’s own words, being sold “rip-off degrees” - an interesting stance from the party who decided to sell them to us in the first place. If one in every five students would have been financially better off having not gone to university, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests, you would think it worth taking a look at the jobs they do, and why their earnings are so low. Instead, the Government's solution seems to be to continue it's attack on the arts. It’s hardly the fault of universities that we don’t value graduate jobs in the humanities or the arts in the way that we should, and it isn’t the fault of such graduates that the Conservatives’ only measure of worth is by income.

Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with non-graduate careers. During the COVID-19 pandemic the wealthy saw, perhaps for the first time, something everyone else knew all along: the value of our lowest-paid workers. Our bus and tram drivers, refuse collectors and hospital porters kept our world turning while graduates stayed mostly at home, safely behind desks whilst the nasty stuff was taken care of. Is it any wonder then, that working-class kids see university as a way to escape the so-called “low-skilled” careers only noticed and valued in times of crisis? Now the pandemic is over, the waves of strike action across Britain show that we are perfectly comfortable in ignoring these workers again. We have learned nothing.

All of this makes me suspect that this isn’t really about the value of degrees at all, but instead about the apparently decadent ambition of working-class students who follow their hearts rather than their wallets to university, as though our only value has to do with how much money we make over our working lives. Perhaps the arts are best left to those who can afford to pursue them; Oxbridge philosophy, politics and economics graduates will always need someone to mend their cars after all. This announcement seems to be a thinly veiled message that people like me should stay in our lane.

The crumbs we pay our musicians and our poets, coupled with the precarity that comes with pursuing these careers, ensure that these industries remain the preserve of those who can afford to aspire to them. It is little wonder that those arts and humanities courses in our ‘best’ universities will likely remain open under the new Tory plans – their graduates come largely from better-off families, whose incomes will reflect this. Instead, it will be courses at our less-prestigious institutions which will suffer, and working-class access to the arts along with it. Throughout the later 1900s, Britain’s working classes exported art and culture to the world. A country whose only creative voices are from amongst the well-off will almost certainly be culturally poorer; more Fleabag and less Victoria Wood.

All of this is engineered to extract maximum value from Britain’s working classes. We are allowed to do the jobs which the more well-off don’t fancy doing, and we are allowed to pursue high-paid careers and therefore pay lots of tax, but what we are not allowed to do is touch those jobs in the arts, the humanities, and the media. Those are for people better than us, and perhaps a few too many students from poorer backgrounds were prepared to brave the low pay which is supposed to keep us out. Cutting university places is surely the only answer.

Instead of sneering at ambition, the Tories might want to think about how to fairly renumerate both the humanities graduates and the non-graduates alike. Perhaps then university courses would not be such a “rip off”, and the shortage of non-graduate workers abated. Dignity and value in every career would offer school leavers and real choice in life – isn’t that what conservatism is supposed to be all about?

Unfortunately, our Prime Minister seems unable to look beyond earnings to see the human value of university education. He also lacks the skill to notice the underpaid workers in the creative arts to whom we turn for inspiration and escape, as well as those in hospitals and in transport to whom we turn in times of crisis. It makes me wonder whether his own degree might have been something of a rip-off. I guess we can trust him to do the maths.