Blog post

Rishi Sunak is right about worthless college degrees

Debate

10:45

Don’t blame the former chancellor for pointing out the obvious

by peter franklin

Credit: Getty

Rishi Sunak has vowed to crack down on “low value” degrees. If he becomes prime minister, courses offered by universities will be assessed on measurable outcomes such as dropout rates and graduate earning potential. Presumably, degrees that fail the test will be voided.

The reaction from the Twitter classes was as quick as expected. For instance, Alex von Tunzelman thinks it’s “a shame” that someone with Sunak’s “prestigious education” hasn’t learned “the overwhelmingly obvious lesson that education can have benefits that go beyond the mere financial fact”.

Maybe education doesn’t work with the bad Conservatives — because, according to Michael Moron the people who “run this country” are a “gang of yahoos”. Moran goes on to suggest that one can “imagine Sunak telling a young Paul McCartney that there’s no point playing the piano and becoming an accountant.” Except Macca didn’t need a degree to become a Beatle – unlike, say, someone studying to become a fully qualified accountant.

Nevertheless, the idea that the higher education system should be held to a value-for-money standard is condemned as an attack on civilization itself. “We are human beings, not just names on a payslip,” as Robert Saunders the dish. Chris Dillow complains that “certain conservatives…used to present themselves as the defenders of high culture against the philistines. Now the conservatives are themselves the Philistines. Meanwhile, Richard Murphy becomes completely apocalyptic: “Sunak learned the price of everything and nothing about value at Oxford. Late capitalism is about destroying society.

Oh good? It is clear that the neoliberal era (ie capitalism since Thatcher and Reagan) has been characterized by a massive expansion of higher education. And thanks to digital technologies – another product of “late capitalism” – humanity has never had such extensive access to the arts and sciences.

As far as sources of cultural enrichment are concerned, we have never been better. What we are missing, however, are essential workers. Today Health Secretary Stephen Barclay warned of a shortage of qualified staff in the NHS. He has launched an overseas recruiting campaign to find the health care workers we need in time for next winter. But it raises the question of why we are not training enough doctors, dentists and nurses in this country.

Skill shortages are not limited to the public sector either. Many companies also lack skilled workers, from truck drivers to computer programmers.

As scholarly fans, it’s a shame that Sunak’s detractors haven’t studied their sources more carefully. For starters, it doesn’t call for courses to be evaluated solely on financial results, it also emphasizes social value. Nor is he advocating the abolition of the humanities or anything so barbaric. All he asks for is a rebalancing that takes into account the needs of the nation.

Having expanded its intake from less than 10% to half the population, it does not seem unreasonable to expect the higher education system to provide the country with enough workers to keep the economy moving and prevent our public services from collapsing. Because these things are civilization too.