Now Here’s a Surprise, University Works


Given the calibre of some of the people I know teach in a modern British university I’m unlikely to believe that the system works well. Works, that is, in educating the young rather than works in the more normal bureaucratic sense of providing comfy jobs for the workshy. I’m wrong apparently and the path to wisdom is indeed strewn with such admissions:

Almost half of recent graduates believe they will never be able to pay back their student loan, as experts warn that they would be better off without university.

Both statements are quite true. The student loan system, given forgiveness of loans and the fact that you don’t even start to repay if on a lowish income, means that it’s much more like a graduate tax than it is a proper loan system. That does indeed mean that some significant portion won’t pay off their loans. It’s also true that, given opportunity costs, a significant portion of people shouldn’t even be going. An arts degree for a male is, for example, a net negative in terms of lifetime earnings – on average, of course.

Yet we can still say that university is working:

A major report, commissioned by the new universities regulator, The Office for Students, analysed the views of 6,000 young people about value for money in higher education.

Just ten per cent of school leavers thought they would be unable to pay back their loan within 30 years, which rose to 28 per cent of university students. Among recent graduates, 42 per cent said they do not expect to repay their loans in full.

Note that none of that is about value for money. The less you repay then the higher the value – as opposed to the cost – of what you did get. But note what happens, as people gain more education they get closer to the right answer:

Three-quarters of UK university leavers will never pay off their student loans, even if they are still contributing in their 50s, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

OK, it’s not working all that well because while education gets them closer to the right answer it doesn’t get them all the way there. But that is good news, don’t you think? Universities do have some marginal value after all, they do in fact impart the odd fact or two such as “most of you will never finish paying for this.” All we need now is to get schools up to the same sort of standard so that more understand they’d best not bother with university at all and we’ll be set, right?