UK Politics

A Vice-Chancellor speaks – why Walter Ellis is wrong to bash universities

BY Professor Quintin McKellar   /  21 August 2018

If Walter Ellis felt like a medieval leper when he published ‘The Oxbridge Conspiracy’, he can now with some confidence add the ire of modern universities to those of the Ancients. He paints a tragic picture of our university system and his opinions are certainly strongly held. Unfortunately they are also outdated, without evidence, and substantially wrong.

To begin, he appears flummoxed by simple statistics. The overall number of young people seeking a university place has fallen because there are fewer young people (there are 2.5% fewer 18-year-olds this year). However, the proportion of those 18-year-olds seeking a university place has actually risen. While Walter contends that ‘the feeling is growing’ that higher education is ‘useless’, young people are voting with their feet and taking up the opportunities that university offers. In the face of relentless negativity among the commentariat, they are showing a greater understanding of the value of a degree.

We can point to the economic value for the individual. The average male graduate will earn 28 per cent more than expected over their working life. The average female graduate will earn 53 per cent more. And moreover, the benefit to the state through increased human capital has been estimated to be £21.5 billion per year. But these graduates are also healthier, happier and less likely to go to prison, all of which amount to an individual as well as societal benefit. And they will not owe £50,000 to a ‘high street bank’, as Walter Ellis suggests but will instead be repaying a Government loan, only once they are earning over £25,000, starting at about £30 a month, and never paying back more than they can afford.

With his refrain ‘Scumbag University’, Walter Ellis fails to grasp the added value that universities across the sector offer students from all backgrounds. Universities will not point to a few exceptional alumni, but to the over 96% of students in jobs within six months of graduation, the vast majority at graduate level. Or they might refer to work by the Economist last summer, emphasising the added value that a university degree had had on the incomes of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Indeed the impact to the individual and to society is arguably greater for those universities accepting the greatest number of widening access students.

The disproportionate number of senior politicians from Oxbridge is laid out as some kind of blemish on British society. Rather it should be celebrated! We have two of the best universities in the world with remarkably stringent selection criteria for their undergraduates, and a rigorous and exacting teaching system. It would be surprising and wasteful if they didn’t produce outstanding graduates, some of whom might gain senior office in government.

What shocks me is the condescending opinion that universities are good for doctors and lawyers but not much else. Walter Ellis completely fails to grasp the essential purpose of a university, to open minds, expand horizons and enhance critical reasoning. Indeed it could be argued that the more vocational courses such as medicine are those which least live up to this glorious objective, but as a veterinary surgeon who has become a vice-chancellor, I tread on dangerous ground.

But what I find particularly shocking is an opinion writer for a pro-market website who objects to students and graduates having the freedom to choose. If we limit university numbers, we will take away the freedom to choose university for the many young people who might well choose to take the opportunity offered to them, an opportunity that the evidence suggests will be extremely positive for them. And we can’t limit the choice for young people to study one area and work in another. Of course people who do chemistry at Cambridge should be able to go to the City to make money! And yes they will certainly utilise the critical faculties learnt in a chemistry degree to assess stock options or whatever else they may be asked to do. Indeed, as the workplace becomes less certain, more flexible and more mobile, the value of a university degree will be enhanced. The economy will require skilled graduates in every area, but we must allow for intelligent young people to determine the course of their own lives.

And of course Britain needs more apprentices. But these might well come from the still majority of 18-year-olds who do not go on to tertiary education. We desperately need to upskill all our workforce but not at the expense of university graduates. Walter Ellis is right that Britain doesn’t need to send half of its young people to university. It needs to send many more! Let us catch up with South Korea, Canada and Australia. Let us have a target of 60 or 70% of the 18 to 22-year-old population going to university. After all, the evidence suggests that for every percentage increase in graduate numbers there is a 0.5% increase in productivity.

Professor Quintin McKellar is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire. 


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