England’s universities minister has warned against relying too heavily on graduate employment data to judge the value of degrees, after the Augar review suggested that they could be a key factor in determining subject-level funding.
While the post-18 review said that funding decisions should also take account of the social value of courses such as nursing and teaching, Chris Skidmore warned that it was difficult to measure this accurately and said that the arts and humanities must not be marginalised.
In a speech to the Society of Antiquaries, Mr Skidmore said that graduate earnings data, “in its current form, cannot measure everything”.
“Until we have found a way to capture the vital contribution that degrees of social value make to our society – degrees like nursing or social care – then we risk overlooking the true value of these subjects. The same goes for the arts and humanities,” the minister said.
Under the Augar review’s recommendations, tuition fees in England would be capped at £7,500 from 2021-22, with public money used to top average per-student funding up to the current level of £9,250. Significantly, however, this cash should be reallocated between disciplines “to reflect more accurately the subject’s reasonable costs and its social and economic value to students and taxpayers”.
Mr Skidmore argued that arts and humanities courses should be encouraged, describing them as being “absolutely vital to our nation’s success and prosperity – not just in terms of transforming the lives of those that study them, and enhancing their future prospects. But [also in terms of] bolstering our economy and putting the UK firmly on the map as world leaders in creative education.”
“What might be ‘low value’ to one man, might to others represent money well spent on acquiring knowledge for its own sake, expanding one’s cultural horizons, learning to empathise and reflect upon the human condition, applying it to the challenges for the future,” the minister said.
Mr Skidmore added that he was “pleased” that one expected recommendation of the post-18 review, to restrict access to student loans to applicants with minimum A-level grades of three Ds or equivalent, “didn’t make the cut”. “It would have been completely regressive, and would have shut the door on opportunity for so many people whose lives are transformed by our world-leading universities and colleges,” Mr Skidmore said.
However, the threshold has not been ruled out entirely. The panel said that universities should be given more time to “address the problem of recruitment to courses which have poor retention, poor graduate employability and poor long-term earnings benefits” before it was considered.
Mr Skidmore said that, while around half of the UK population now had a degree by the time they were 30, this was “still not enough in my opinion, and certainly not enough if we are to compete as a knowledge economy for the future internationally”.
On the broader importance of the arts and humanities, the minister described these disciplines as being what what made science “useable”, and provided a “moral compass” for its development. “It’s no good developing a cure for a pandemic like Ebola, for example, if you don’t have the anthropologists, the linguists or the lawyers to make the science work on the ground. To bring the product to market. To win the trust of the people,” he said.
In addition, “at a time when trust in knowledge and expertise is constantly threatened by the lapping tides of populism, we need the humanities more than ever to be able to reach out and communicate the value of science and research more than ever”, Mr Skidmore said.
The minister concluded: “A world without the arts and humanities would not just be a sad and boring world. It would be a completely dysfunctional world. A world without progress. And a world where ideas could never get off the page. A world without the arts and humanities would also be a very poor world.”