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View from the Street: Mickey Mouse and the true value of a university degree

Anna Dickens

Associate partner

Mickey Mouse is ripping off young people. 

While that’s not exactly what the Conservative Party said yesterday, it makes about as much sense as what Rishi Sunak and Gillian Keegan did say about the party’s plans to cut one in eight university places.  

Inherent in the party’s approach to the university sector – from the creation of the Office for Students to yesterday’s pledge – is the belief that the merit of higher education lies solely in increased graduate earning potential. This approach treats students like customers and universities like suppliers – a dynamic that doesn’t reflect the nature of the sector nor recognise its value.  

The debate over the purpose of higher education is nothing new. Is the purpose to acquire knowledge and prepare the workforce, or does it make a more idealist contribution to the quality of our civic society, our wellbeing, our culture and our democracy?  

Increasingly, politicians appear to believe the value lies in workforce development, a view heightened by challenging productivity statistics and skills gaps. However, it is misguided to create a dichotomy between the economic and social benefits of a university education, and policy that impacts universities should be considered against the holistic contributions they make in our society.  

Universities contribute around £130bn to the UK economy, conduct critical research to solve our complex global problems, and foster the enterprise and entrepreneurship needed to grow our economy and keep it competitive – all while teaching skills, critical thinking, fostering culture, and enlightening minds. 

What universities haven’t always been good at doing is communicating those harder to measure, softer impacts. The lack of awareness around the whole value of the sector contributes to it being treated as a tool of the state, something to be scaled up and down depending on skills shortages and labour markets. And the UK is facing some serious challenges on these fronts.  

Higher education, further education and apprenticeships must all be part of the solution, as well as students and the businesses and industries that will employ them. We need more investment in further education and apprenticeships, but it shouldn’t be an either/or situation and throwing out individual courses based on imperfect measures carries substantial risks.  

Here in Scotland, education is devolved so even if the Conservatives win power these proposals wouldn’t apply here. However, we cannot pretend Scotland gets it right when it comes to understanding the value of higher education.  

Our investment in students’ education has failed to keep up with inflation and the sector faces a £28.5m cut to teaching budgets next year. Universities are increasingly reliant on international student income, and the recently abandoned plan to end the graduate visa route demonstrated the volatility of that funding stream.  

My own “Mickey Mouse” degree – fine art and philosophy – has served me throughout my career but – more importantly – it has provided me personal fulfilment, appreciation for the world around me and the critical thinking skills to understand and make judgements about it.  

My university experience provided long-term benefits to my mental, emotional, intellectual and financial wellbeing, and as such, the impact of it couldn’t possibly be measured by a Graduate Outcome Survey, conducted 15 months after graduation. At that stage, I was largely uncertain of where my life or career would take me, and I was happy to enjoy the ride.  

The Higher Education Statistics Agency can’t measure the awakening a mind can experience or the lifelong relationships that can be built at university. It’s time to expand the narrative and communicate better about the true value of a university degree.