Book Review: “The Great University Con”

“The Great University Con: How We Broke Our Universities and Betrayed a Generation”, by David Craig and Hugh Openshaw, makes a powerful case against what has been done to our universities in recent years. Review by Holly Metcalf, IF researcher 

This book is ambitious in its scope, critiquing wide-ranging aspects of the university system, from the obvious target of the raised tuition fees and accompanying student debt, through to the complacency of UK institutions which take the global success of British universities for granted, despite growing competition from abroad. This comprehensive approach makes it useful for someone who wants an overview of the system’s flaws. It reads less as an overall argument, more as a list of criticisms, with a short section at the end devoted to proposed solutions. It leans towards a journalistic style, often relying on anecdotal evidence or survey responses over detailed studies.

Whilst this analysis lacks robustness at times, it makes for an interesting read, frequently giving students a voice through the inclusion of quotes from interview respondents.

The “Great University Expansion” and falling standards

A key thrust of the authors’ argument is the detrimental effect of the expansion of universities on standards.

This “Great University Expansion” dates back to the 1980s, with the scrapping, in 2015, of an overall cap on the number of university places, potentially paving the way for further increases in student numbers. Roughly half of young people in the UK will now attend university.

The authors explain how, at many institutions, the A-level grades necessary to obtain a place have fallen, and, as a result of falling standards amongst university entrants, courses are having to reduce their content, meaning that the overall quality of education is falling. Moreover, growing student numbers and cost-cutting measures by universities mean that students are increasingly left with very large class sizes, and few contact hours, which further threatens the quality of their education.

The “marketisation” of higher education

A common critique of recent higher education reforms concerns the “marketisation” of the university system. Although the authors don’t explicitly use this terminology, a lot of their concerns fall in this area – particularly when they discuss how many students feel let down by the system. They provide an interesting discussion of the increased marketing by universities, which often gives students a misleading impression that a course will lead on to a particular job. For example, accreditation of a course by a particular professional body does not mean that the degree will guarantee a job in that profession. This not only leads to many graduates working in non-graduate jobs, and struggling to pay off their student debt; it also creates a labour-market mismatch between job vacancies and the degrees which students have studied.

Whilst there are more graduates in subjects like psychology, law and forensic science than there are graduate jobs available, other skills vacancies, particularly in STEM subjects, leave some employers having to recruit from abroad. The government imposes a cap on the number of university places to study medicine, but the authors suggest that this should be extended to other vocational degrees where the government is the key, or the only, employer.

As well as being led to believe that a university degree may guarantee a career in a particular field, students are also being promised a “graduate premium” – a lifetime boost in earnings for those with a university degree – which is increasingly failing to materialise. This is a particularly damning finding, as the supposed existence of a graduate premium is often used in arguments justifying rising tuition fees.

Universities are not all alike

A theme which occurs frequently throughout the book, which could have benefited from more explicit emphasis, is the problem of inequality. On average, graduate premiums may be a thing of the past, but they are still a very real benefit for some students, doing some courses, at some institutions. These often older, higher-ranked institutions have much greater wealth endowments, and so have expanded far less, being under less financial pressure to take on extra students.

The authors do include a section on access, emphasising that it is often students from more socioeconomically-disadvantaged backgrounds who may be most likely to be taken in by “the great university con” – and they are certainly under-represented at Oxbridge and other highly-ranked Russell Group institutions. They discuss the important role of teachers in influencing university choices, and present the nuanced view that underrepresentation of certain groups at university is due not just to the selection process at top-ranked institutions, but also the school achievement and aspirations of the applicants.

What is missing?

This book is commendably ambitious in its attempt to cover so many aspects of the university system, from admissions and funding, to academic standards and employers’ views. However, its targeted critique of the higher education system means that there is little recognition of the fact that many of the problems facing students and recent graduates – difficulty finding a stable job or career; high housing costs; poor or no advice in school over careers or further education – are problems faced by all young people, not just university students.

The authors provide a thoughtful critique of the now widely-propagated idea that university is something everyone ought to aspire to. Reintroducing a limit on the number of students at university, as they propose, may improve standards, and could reduce the numbers of students saddled with significant debts and a degree which has failed to improve their job prospects. However, halving the number of students would not, as they suggest, lead to twice the amount of funding per student. It would necessitate a re-thinking of government funding for alternative education streams, such as technical education and vocational qualifications, which are already woefully-underfunded relative to university education.

The main focus of the book is on critiquing the current system, whilst its proposed solutions make up a relatively small section. Notwithstanding, this is a book that will deliver plenty of food for thought for anyone who is curious about the current higher education system, and wants to understand its impact on students, on teaching standards, and on the wider economy.

The Great University Con: How We Broke Our Universities and Betrayed a Generation, by David Craig and Hugh Openshaw. Published 2018 by The Original Book Company, price £7.99