[SIZE=6]DOUGLAS MURRAY: A university system that charges our children a fortune to study video games and zombies is a national fraud[/SIZE]
It is more than 20 years since our then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, announced that he wanted 50 per cent of young people to go to university.
It was the sort of move that Blair was such a master at. Great on pizzazz. Low on thought.
After all, why should half of young people go to university? Universities have always been elite institutions precisely because most people don’t go to them.
Do they really suit half the public? If so, who should pay?
Last year, that 50 per cent figure was finally achieved. Yet, as the novelist Kingsley Amis once explained, when it comes to higher education, ‘more means worse’.
He has been more than proved right. As the university system has expanded, so it has changed from being a sector dedicated to excellence into a national fraud, something akin to a Ponzi scheme, with those at the bottom – the debt-laden students – coming off the worst.
This is why the Policy Exchange think-tank is quite right to say that universities have ‘lost the faith of the nation’, that they are out of touch and a sitting duck for this new Government.
From the fat salaries paid to vice-chancellors to grade inflation, the failings are many and various.
For the students, however, there is one question above all others: is it worth it? In all too many cases, the answer is No.
Don’t get me wrong, there are superb universities out there and hundreds of dedicated tutors and lecturers.
Many people will get as much out of a degree course today as they would have done at any time in the past. Yet an expanding higher education sector has succumbed to increased mediocrity.
Failing colleges that ought to have gone out of business have found themselves fooling students into thinking that they are elite institutions.
They have ended up providing degree courses that are fast-tracks only to working in the self-regenerating university ‘blob’ or to unemployment.
In the process, we have lost sight of what such an education should entail.
There was a time when we would look to our universities for insight into the great questions of the day, if not the human condition itself.
But if you were to survey what an expanded university sector now encompasses, you might well conclude that it’s the last place you should look for a sensible or informed opinion.
What, for instance, is the use of somebody like Jane Dipple, who, during her time at the University of Winchester, specialised in zombies (indeed, it was the subject of her PhD)?
If the Government ever needs to get advice on the un-dead, they know who to call.
Or what about Seth Giddings at the University of Southampton. He is an expert on video games, having completed a PhD on ‘video games and technocultural theory’.
He is not limited only to video-game expertise. As his university profile states, his recent research has centred on ‘ethologies of the design of playful technologies, from mobile games to robots to playground swings’.
Such nonsense gives a wholly misleading impression. Schoolchildren might choose to apply themselves to the hard sciences or the humanities when they go to university, and many do. But how much more attractive to study zombies or video games?
Unless they plan to take up teaching posts at these third-rate universities, however, zombie-studies graduates will find they have spent three years running up debt to gain a qualification in a non-discipline of interest to few employers.
It is a common theme. Last month, the Institute of Fiscal Studies reported that one in five graduates (some 70,000 students every year) would have been better off not going to university at all.
Compare this to successful trainees who have been through the apprenticeship scheme at Pimlico Plumbers.
As last week’s Mail on Sunday explained, they can expect a £40,000-a-year salary once qualified, while the firm’s top tradesmen can earn more than £100,000.
Many of those leaving university today can only dream of such salaries. Moreover, trainees at Pimlico Plumbers have no need of graduate loans, or the ruinous debts that they entail.
What is wrong with encouraging trades such as plumbing or carpentry, pursuits allowing young people to help the economy, both in much needed expertise and in taxation?
One reason why plumbers are in such demand is that the thousands of young people who would have taken such jobs in the past have been persuaded to go to university instead. Once there, they have been indoctrinated into uselessness.