Deirdre Heenan: Rishi Sunak's plan to cap 'low value' university courses is predictable from a regime that is flatlining

Rishi Sunak says he wants to put an end to people “being taken advantage of with low-quality courses” by restricting universities in recruiting students to them. Picture by Alberto Pezzali/PA Wire
Rishi Sunak says he wants to put an end to people “being taken advantage of with low-quality courses” by restricting universities in recruiting students to them. Picture by Alberto Pezzali/PA Wire

Rishi Sunak does not have his troubles to seek. He faces a number of daunting challenges if he is to turn around his party’s fortunes. Partygate, Brexit, low economic productivity, cross channel migration, poor industrial relations, economic stagnation, inflation and budgetary pressures are destabilising his attempts to reverse his government’s declining fortunes.

It was never going to be easy but instead of any serious attempt to address the root causes of these issues, he has chosen instead to avoid responsibility and deflect blame. Populist rhetoric and culture wars are favoured over problem-solving or evidence-based policy making. Levelling-up, stopping small boats, and global Britain are nothing more than empty, meaningless slogans.

Sunak’s latest wheeze in distraction politics is to announce a crackdown on “rip off’ university degrees that don’t lead to well-paid, highly skilled jobs.

The prime minister wants to force universities to cap the number of students taking degrees that do not have good career prospects or lead to graduate jobs. According to him these “low value degrees” provide limited job prospects and leave students burdened with crippling debt.

Sunak stressed that “too many young people are being sold a false dream and end up doing a “poor quality” course at the taxpayers’ expense. The government has said limits will be imposed on courses that have a high drop-out rate or low proportion of graduates getting a professional job.

The sympathy for these poor gullible students sold “Mickey Mouse” degrees is of course performative nonsense. The underlying reason for this move is the financing of higher education and the growing pile of debt on the Treasury books. They have already changed the terms of student loans and employment thresholds so that graduates have to pay back more, sooner.

Despite government expectations, young people have not been deterred by higher university fees, even for courses with lower employment prospects. This is just an acceptable way of saying that we are removing options for working class children as the marketised system has failed to achieve our objectives.

Read more: Deirdre Heenan: The NHS undoubtedly has problems, but it can be fixed

Read more: Deirdre Heenan: Health service transformation is a pipe dream unless MLAs are willing to make – and own – tough decisions

Read more: Deirdre Heenan: Why charging for prescriptions doesn't add up

Universities are soft political targets, and this government has a long history of gratuitous attacks and smears on higher education, but this is abysmal. According to this logic, degrees should be defined and valued according to their earning potential – a fairly reductive and instrumental view of education.

Students do not go to university just to enhance their career prospects. A wealth of international research highlights the multitude of benefits associated with a degree course. Many are motivated by an interest in a subject, a desire to enhance their knowledge, curiosity, passion for an idea, the sporting and social opportunities.

Some things such as happiness, self-fulfilment, wellbeing, confidence, open-mindedness, can’t be measured in cash. A degree is much more than a passport to a better career.

A 'job for life' is largely a thing of the past and our young people can expect to have a lifetime of jobs. Ninety per cent of the world’s data was created in the last two years and information is growing at a faster rate than ever. In this context people have the skills to make sense of this digital revolution.

Universities focus on providing key transferable skills such as critical analysis, team working and communication. Many books and academic papers are out of date before they appear in print, but the process of weighing up the evidence, understanding the connection between ideas and thinking rationally is highly valued. Courses such as English, History and Philosophy which encourage people to evaluate systems, ethics and structures should be highly regarded, not sneered at.

Neither the education secretary nor the prime minister were willing to be specific about which courses they pejoratively term as "low value" or substandard. To date there is no clarity about which courses will be affected by the proposed caps. We have also no idea how they would judge failure.

What is an acceptable starting salary for a graduate? Presumably all nursing and social work degrees will be for the chop as staff here are often just above the minimum wage. Arts and humanities courses are also likely to be axed.

The creative arts contributed £109 billion to the UK economy in 2021 but wages are relatively low; should we abolish higher education for this sector? If this government get their way, then only those from affluent backgrounds should study art and culture.

UK prime ministers who studied “low value” degrees include Attlee, Eden, Wilson, Brown, May, Johnson and, oh yes, Sunak himself. The subtext is clear: humanities, arts and social sciences are a luxury available to the elite.

Could it be that the problem in the UK is that the economic and social policies of this government have led to increased tuition fees, marketisation of higher education, spiralling debt and low wages?

The issue is actually about a lack of decent jobs in this nascent low wage economy rather than the ‘value’ of degrees. Value can manifest itself in many ways. Misrepresenting the role of education is a deliberate and crass attempt to limit social mobility, ambition and aspiration of the working classes.

It takes no account of the those who are first in their families to go to university and who rightly view it as a massive achievement. Mature students and those who are disabled or have caring responsibilities but wish to continue their education are also conveniently ignored.

Higher education is a public good which benefits society as a whole. Many other European countries recognise the broader merits of education, ensure that it is accessible and have significantly higher rates of participation than the UK.

The narrow view of higher education is both predictable and depressing from a regime that is flatlining. Looking at higher education purely through a financial lens is the antithesis of education. These proposals to cap degrees according to their economic outcomes are just the latest policy from a government that knows the price of everything and the value of the nothing.