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Who needs an English degree? asks Nigel Hastilow

By Nigel Hastilow | In-depth | Published:

A university education was once the privilege of the rich; now it is the right of every 18-year-old capable of singing ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ at Glastonbury.

Neither the old, exclusive days nor the present all-inclusive policy is right for the students or for the country.

Britain needs well-educated young people and school-leavers need an opportunity to broaden their horizons and receive a training which will lead to a good career.

That rarely means taking a degree in English or other arts subjects, not excluding media studies and most of the other courses you can take to earn the right to call yourself a Bachelor of Arts.

These courses can be rewarding. They can create a lifetime of interest and excitement for their students. But as far as their importance to the country and to their students’ job prospects are concerned, they are of limited value and should only be undertaken at your peril.

I speak as an English graduate and it is fair to say my three years of study at the University of Birmingham did little for my career prospects. They didn’t even teach me to punctuate properly which is why, when I became a journalist, my first editor was highly unimpressed with my language skills despite my degree.

Now the new Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, terrified by Labour’s widespread support among the graduating classes, wants to cut the cost of arts degrees. This is precisely the opposite of what he should be doing.

Admittedly, it’s cheap for a university to ‘teach’ arts degrees. They usually involve only a few hours a week of cursory lecturing while professors devote their time and attention to writing books. The rest of the time the kids are told to get on with it on their own, reading books, writing essays and enjoying three years of freedom.

Naturally, arts degrees are very popular. They aren’t academically demanding; it’s more like you are devoting time to a favourite hobby.

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The hard degrees are the ones which lead to real careers, where a sound education is immensely valuable. We need doctors, engineers of all descriptions, chemists, IT specialists, mathematicians – people whose ingenuity and expertise will keep us alive and allow the economy to grow.

Educating such people is in the national interest, as well as in the interests of the students themselves. School pupils should be pushed into science-based degrees and careers and discouraged as much as possible from the soft options of the arts.

So the Government should cut the fees for science courses and increase those for the arts.

Rather than a blanket fee of £9,250 per year on each course, it should be abolished altogether for science subjects and doubled for those studying the arts.

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The price of the course cannot be the only test. Its value is much more important. And science graduates are of more precious to the nation than artists.

Theresa May has promised a review of the Government’s tuition fees policy because it is in a terrible mess. Students are unhappy. Their lecturers are going on strike. And vice chancellors are paying themselves exorbitant salaries.

Worse still, the sums don’t add up. The financial arrangements governing university fees make the accounting at Carillion look like a model of probity and responsibility.

At least 40 per cent of student loans will never be repaid. That is about £6 billion a year of debt that will eventually have to be written off.

But thanks to Treasury trickery and sleight of hand, these huge sums are what, in the murky world of dubious City dealings, would be called ‘off-balance-sheet transactions’ – the sort of scam which destroyed US energy company Enron in 2001.

This matters because successive Governments are steadily building a giant wall of debt which will one day collapse. And the people footing the bill in a couple of decades’ time will be today’s graduates. Those with good jobs, who have paid off their debts, will be taxed all over again to cover the cost of a failed policy. It began with the foolish expansion of higher education and the move to shovel half of all school-leavers into university.

This devalued degrees and betrayed both employers and employees.

The great expectations many students start off with, and their graduation day celebrations, are all too often undermined when they are confronted with the reality of what their degree is worth on the open jobs market.

A review of fees won’t be worthwhile unless it’s accompanied by a serious reappraisal of what universities are for, whether we have too many of them and if they offer too many fatuous courses.

We do need some historians, linguists, musicians and even one or two philosophers. But far fewer than we’ve got at the moment. And we need more graduates with the practical skills the country needs for economic growth.

Degrees are not all equally valuable. The Government and universities should admit it and price them accordingly. Britain doesn’t need English graduates.

Nigel Hastilow

By Nigel Hastilow

Express & Star columnist

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