There is a chronic illness at the heart of the United Kingdom. Drunk on a political cocktail of ideas about individual choice and freedom, ‘winning the Cold War’ and economic prosperity during the 1990s, the West allowed higher education to become a bloated mess. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced here in Britain. Since 1992, the year in which the Further and Higher Education Act was passed, the number of universities in the UK has skyrocketed. The value of a university education has, however, plummeted.. A staggering 78 universities have been created – many having been former polytechnic colleges – since 1992. As there are (according to the Complete University Guide) 130 universities currently in the UK, this means well over half have been created in just 30 years. Bear in mind that universities have existed in the UK for almost one thousand years.
Have young people suddenly become radically more intelligent? It is difficult to answer this question directly, but related evidence paints a pessimistic picture. In fact, an award-winning study in 2016, entitled Fifty years of A-level mathematics: have standards changed?, revealed that in the case of A-level Mathematics – being regarded generally as a more ‘objective’ subject – a grade E in 1968 would have been worth a grade B in 1996. In other words, standards have fallen drastically in some examinations, whilst university-level education has seemingly proliferated. Politics may provide a better answer to the question, then: Tony Blair was famous, after all, for championing “education, education, education” during his tenure at Downing Street, and notoriously promoted the ideal of at least fifty per cent of British youngsters heading off to university.
However, neither declining standards nor Tony Blair – whatever one’s qualms with the man may be – can be entirely blamed for the sorry state of higher education. Nor can any other political party, infamous though the Conservatives were (and are still) for tripling tuition fees in 2012. No – the issue is within the education system itself, which has blindly glorified university-level education as the be-all and end-all for young people’s futures. It begins before higher education, taking root within schools up and down the UK. General ‘university’ attainment, as a broad category, is a common way for schools to try to demonstrate that they provide successful outcomes for their pupils. A brief statement may be made that a small handful are off to ‘Oxbridge’, but the other 128 universities of the UK are generally left unmentioned. Boasting is rarely made by schools about sending students anywhere except the Russell Group, somewhat obscuring the honest and painful truth that students are, in many cases, being funnelled into a meat-grinder of groupthink, drug-fuelled partying and plummeting mental health, arriving at the end with nothing more to show for their three- to four-year courses than a jilted sleep schedule, at least £27,000 of debt and a degree certificate designed on software predating the advent of Windows Vista.
In discourse on our indubitably broken higher education system, the diagnosis has often – and perhaps in some cases rightly – been squarely aimed at the proliferation of ‘mickey mouse degrees’, qualifications in vocations and disciplines that do not warrant a degree to demonstrate one’s aptitude in the field, or that seem too niche for a degree-level offering. When the expression ‘mickey mouse degree’ is mentioned, Marine Biology is perhaps the classic degree which will spring to the minds of every gammon-faced man, named Keith or Geoff, who thinks ‘woke culture’ and university students are infringing upon his right to consume a steak and ale pie. Classic degree punchbags like Marine Biology aside, there is a genuine and concerning inflation in the choice of qualifications on offer, which has concomitantly acted alongside the inflation of institutions to further devalue the once-great university degree.
(‘Golf Management’, offered at several UK institutions but – thankfully – not at the university of the Home of Golf itself, sticks out as a particular non-starter; asking the St Andrews Links maintenance staff how many of them actually did such a degree might make for an interesting straw poll on the matter.) Sports-related degrees generally stick out, on the whole, as particular culprits of the ‘mickey mouse’ tendency in degree offerings of recent times, as many qualifications with the ‘Sports’ appellation seem better addressed by more general, wide-ranging degrees. Sports Medicine as its own BA (or ‘Clinical Exercise Therapy’, to be specific) seems needless given the ubiquity of the Medicine degree; likewise, if one wishes to pursue a career in Sports Journalism, rather than taking a degree specifically in that discipline one may better be served by a degree in English Literature, which would equip the student with a more nuanced understanding of the art of the written language before pursuing a career in Sports Journalism.
In the examples mentioned above and in the many far beyond the scope of this article, there appears a common thread of truth in the ‘mickey mouse’ accusation: namely, that these degrees offer over-specialised forms of a subject with a longer and more productive legacy as an established undergraduate degree. The Sports examples above offer just a snippet of how other, more prestigious degrees better equip the student with a broader knowledge base and a greater range of skills for not just a career but, in fact, for the enjoyment of life through all its different avenues. It must also be remembered that practically every degree costs the same £9,250 to the majority of UK students – Scots notwithstanding – so these degrees must be assessed on the basis that, to the student as a ‘consumer’, the cost is identical in every case.
Lamentable though the proliferation of the mickey mouse degree may be, the issue principally remains institutional. An over-specialised ‘mickey mouse’ degree may still offer value if it is taught in a rigorous and high-quality fashion by the leading names in its discipline. Attention is placed principally upon the university to which one is destined, rather than the degree one desires to study, when Results Day beckons. Similarly, as many readers will have probably already discovered from their own interactions, the question of where one is studying is often asked before, or with greater emphasis, than the question of what one is studying. Whilst certain universities may offer a particular advantage in a certain discipline above all others, in most cases institutions represent a gathering of high-quality specialists across a range of different fields, rather than overspecialisation in a particular field; rightly so, considering that the etymology of university is universitas, ‘a whole’.
As such, when studying and diagnosing the issues of higher education in its present state, aim must be directed not at the mickey mouse degree, but in fact the calamity outlined at the very beginning of this article: the great institutional inflation at the university level since 1992. Polytechnics with fantastic legacies have been dragged to dismal places in university rankings since they have converted to the latter form of educational establishment. (I shan’t name names in this article, but I would encourage readers to do a bit of their own research into some of the former polytechnics in the university league tables.) Where a diploma or similar qualification from a polytechnic might once have been worn as a badge of pride, their present rankings on par with other universities suggest gross inadequacy in providing quality education. One might blame the idea of league tables for this, rather than the intrinsic nature of these new former polytechnic universities, but this would be dishonest; if an institution seeks to become a university, then it should expect to be ranked against its counterparts, particularly when universities at both ends of the league table charge all UK students the aforementioned £9,250 for their degrees.
Finally, it may be legitimately asked why any of this is such an issue. The answer is frighteningly clear, however. From a governmental perspective, debt on student loans currently costs the Treasury – therefore the UK taxpayer – £182bn as of March 2022, or enough to run the NHS for over eighteen months. For the student, they are prone to being left with the disastrous concoction of debt, sleeplessness and mental health issues which I alluded to above. Not to mention the fact that the poor reputations of many universities – the post-1992 collection in particular – mean that their graduate employment prospects are abysmally low. In turn, for society as a whole there exists the most pressing danger of all: a legion of students, drugged up on political and social theory, saddled with mountains of debt, and lacking gainful employment. What more is required for social upheaval on a massive scale, particularly in times like these?
There may be a certain irony or perhaps a sense of ungratefulness surrounding the fact that a university student, of all people, is writing an article like this. But if alarm is to be raised anywhere, it should be at universities themselves.
Illustration: Sarah Knight