Capping ‘Low Value’ University Degrees is nuts

Sue Nethercott
10 min readAug 8


A University should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.

— Benjamin Disraeli.

My MSc certificate
Photo by Sue Nethercott

With people worrying about cost of living or the climate, for example, Rishi Sunak apparently thinks it important to reduce the course choice of university students by capping the numbers of students on ‘low-value’ degrees.

The government has issued a press release, “Crackdown on rip-off university degrees”. Rishi Sunak penned an op ed, “Too many university students are sold a false dream”, saying that “young people are being saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt from bad degrees that just leave them poorer”, failing to realise that if we want a well-educated workforce and to fit as many young people as possible for well paid jobs, higher education should once again be free, so debt should not exist. It’s not a new idea, the Office for Students is already working on it.

But his dream may not be young students’ dreams, just as his priorities are not everybody’s. While at university he may have mingled with the right connections to get where he is today, but by failing to mix with students with different backgrounds he missed out learning more about how the rest of us live and what we think, which would have made him a better PM.

What are ‘low-value’ degrees?

First, we need to define low value degrees. We don’t actually know what the government means, so some of this article will be speculative. According to Universities UK, “Measures developed to assess value include considering student satisfaction with teaching, assessment, feedback and academic support together with graduate employment rates, contribution to economic growth, and social and environmental impact”.

Education minister Robert Halfon did not seem to know which courses would be affected. But his comments ‘you don’t have to go to university to succeed’ and “it may be that in some universities there are arts courses that are leading to good jobs” indicate that he shares Sunak’s view that university is only about getting a good job. The government appears to not appreciate the arts, humanities and history. Those Tory MPs who went to university apparently did not learn much culture, critical thinking, tolerance or empathy. Instead of attacking other peoples’ education, they should be taking a good look at their own.

Conservatives tend to focus on degrees “a route to a job, a career, a better income” according to Gillian Keegan MP and Neil O’Brien OBE MP. According to Professor Damien Page, deputy vice chancellor at Buckinghamshire New University, this attitude is based “on the fallacy that the graduate employment market is a meritocracy” and would “further position higher education as the preserve of the white, the wealthy, the young and the non-disabled”. It shows a lack of understanding of the wide benefits of further education, which all those capable of earning a degree ought to be able to benefit from if they want. It seems they missed out, somehow, just as they are missing much of what government is about. It seems likely that the reason for this push is that students who take degrees that do not lead to well paid jobs are less likely to repay their student loans.

So it is all about money to the government. It proposes to change the terms of student loans so it has to fund less of the costs itself. And universities are charging the same for courses that don’t lead to good jobs because to charge less would give the appearance that the degree was of less value. Students who are passionate about their subject enroll on the courses anyway. Humanities are often cheaper to run so universities make more from them: this does not mean that they are poorer courses, simply because they do not need expensive equipment.

Quite a few UK courses are likely to fail to make the cut.

Nevertheless, some students are studying subjects they think will give them a good job rather than what they are most passionate about, for the simple reason that many of them will rack up considerable debt. In the US this is often many tens of thousands of dollars. This has benefited the institutions that loan them the money, but is a major drag on the economy as the students cannot afford to buy houses or start a family. They also daren’t risk becoming entrepreneurs, which is not helped by the fact that they get health insurance through their employment. More and more it is not becoming financially worthwhile to get a degree, which leads to a more poorly educated workforce and less competitiveness.

A recent study found that STEM majors are the most valuable and Arts majors are the least valuable. But not everyone is suited to STEM. Among the lowest were Counseling Psychology, Clinical Psychology and Performing Arts — which surely have their own non-financial value. Before we start attacking ‘low value’ degrees, perhaps we ought to value them better.

Roughly 20% of students are not financially better off from going to university. Those that are gain an average net lifetime earnings increase of around 20% for both men and women.

The value of degrees is said to be declining anyway.

Since these days people are more likely to switch to a second or even third career, the subject matter of the course matters less than the universally applicable skills that it teaches. People will need retraining, whether at university or at a more practical level. There are big changes afoot, e.g. AI — so who knows what degrees might be useful by the time they have been obtained?

Drop outs are not necessarily failures. There are many famous dropouts who have gone on to have big careers, including Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Tiger Woods, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, Paul Allen, Frank Lloyd Wright, Michael Dell, R. Buckminster Fuller, Bill Clinton and Steve Wozniak. Some of them met their business partners at university, however, and some returned to university after forging successful careers.

At Cambridge, then Prince Charles studied archaeology, anthropology and history. Would these subjects find favour with Rishi Sunak?

My experience

My first degree was a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) Open from the Open University. To be honest, I had no expectation of obtaining a degree, as I had done poorly with my previous studies (which had nothing to do with a lack of intelligence or hard work). So, I took a general degree, trying out different subjects, It included technology and science (I had focused on modern languages previously) including computing, electronics, telecommunications, maths, statistics, music, psychology, control engineering, etc. I already had a career in computing, and it made no difference there. Though by the time I obtained my degree (and my boss his) we were the only ones in the computing department who did not have a degree, which might have been limiting later.

My next degree was a MSc in Microprocessor Engineering and Digital Electronics from UMIST (University of Manchester). Surely that would get me a highly paid job on the cutting edge of industry back then? But no, there were no takers, so it was a waste of time and money, jobwise.

My third degree was a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Environmental Studies from the Open University. I was far more concerned with understanding this complex and urgent subject than getting a job as a result of it. Unlike many politicians, I like to know what I am talking about, and whether the danger was as real as people were making out (clue — it is). There are so many people in politics who don’t know what they are talking about when it comes to the climate, and their disinformation is very damaging to the planet and the human race.

Without these degrees I would not have had the skills or confidence to write articles or the knowledge to intelligently discuss a wide variety of topics.

My experience is that you can get a lot out of studying without getting a job at the end of it — and even STEM degrees are no guarantee of a job.

What will happen to those deterred from going to university?

They say they will provide more apprenticeships, which I applaud in theory. But with so much of our manufacturing having gone to countries with cheaper labour and lower standards (figure 2a, secondary), where will they find the employers? How will they find computing apprenticeships when massive contracts go to foreign firms?

Effect on Universities

Another factor is that a fifth of university income comes from foreign students. For well regarded specialist schools like the Royal College of Art (RCA) and the University of the Arts London, that figure rises to 54%. If Arts courses are valued poorly in the review, since the Arts are not often highly paid, then this could be bad for universities. And since universities can charge foreign students considerably more, they are likely to take up a larger proportion of any capped courses they are interested in, squeezing out UK students.

The maximum fee that universities can charge for classroom-based foundation year courses will also be reduced from £9,250 to £5,760.

It’s class war

Roughly 85% of MPs have degrees. Around 99 do not. An Oxbridge education seems to give you entry to the old boy’s network which can lead to you getting jobs well above your ability. It doesn’t fit you for governing the rest of us, however. Governments have made some disastrous decisions, even in subjects they have degrees in (e.g., economics). Perhaps it is courses like PPE that truly are low value, leading people to think they are fit to run the country when they are not; these courses should be much updated and revised. A lot of MPs have studied PPE at Oxford, including Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. 70% of the MPs that went to Oxbridge are conservatives. Yet they place so little value on other people’s degrees that they disregard experts frequently. History is the second most popular subject, but would it normally lead to highly paid jobs?

In America, Children of ‘super rich’ parents twice as likely to get into elite universities. There was also a massive cheating scandal where students were presented as athletes to get into ivy league schools when they were not. Their parents could afford the bribes required. There have been admissions scandals in the UK, too, though these may not have involved bribes.

By cutting back on the courses that the scions of the upper classes tend not to choose and get into, the government is lessening the choice and even the likelihood of getting a place for everyone else.

It may be that there are other motivations in play here. For example, if the number of students taking archaeology or biology is reduced, there will be fewer experts to speak up in defence of our history or environment when developers want to make a profit off the land. The same goes for climate change courses. Will they be capped? They may not lead to well paid jobs but the more people who are educated on the subject, the better, since many people who are not educated on the subject are spouting nonsense that is doing great harm to the planet and to us. Ignorance is folly.

They could be planning to cut history courses that teach things they do not like, In America the more right wing states are banning the teaching of CRT, which is code for black history, and even expect teachers to teach that slavery was good for slaves. Extreme, perhaps, but where Republicans go the extreme right wing in the UK follow, egged on by the same characters.

Assuming students switch to the remaining degrees, where will the extra highly qualified staff and facilities come from? They could end up creating more low value degrees with some poorer teachers and less motivated students.

Students should have the right to pick their own courses. They should be given information on the likelihood of getting a job with their chosen degree, and what sort of salary they might expect, but if they have a passion for something which is unlikely to earn them a lot of money and they accept that, why stop them? For some, the years at university are the only time they can follow their passion. For a libertarian-leaning government, they sure are keen to restrict our freedoms.

Even supposing the student gets a job that pays well, the government calls pay rises inflationary and tries to reduce wages in real terms — except in the careers they favour, such as banking. Another form of interference, and totally unjustified and unfair.

There’s more to life than money

Salaries reflect the capitalist view of the world, which is a very narrow and harmful one, encouraging psychopathy.

The 1945 Labour Party Election Manifesto promised “further” or adult education, and free secondary education for all, saying:

“And, above all, let us remember that the great purpose of education is to give us individual citizens capable of thinking for themselves.

National and local authorities should co-operate to enable people to enjoy their leisure to the full, to have opportunities for healthy recreation. By the provision of concert halls, modern libraries, theatres and suitable civic centres, we desire to assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation. desire to assure to our people full access to the great heritage of culture in this nation.

The Open University was created under Harold Wilson and enhanced the lives of many people, including me, without forcing people into narrow fields. Some got better paid careers. Some were able to advance further in their careers (for example teachers who had entered the profession with a lower qualification than a degree after the war were able to upgrade and progress up the ladder).

Margaret Thatcher supported the Open University, but public education funding was cut during her term.

Introducing competition to university education has not worked, and this will not work.

I couldn’t afford to do another degree now; it has got too expensive — and I was halfway through one. I’m waiting to win the lottery. Or maybe my writing will start to earn me enough to pay to finish it.

Tories’ grade? ‘Could do better’.

This is yet another policy idea the Tories have not thought through. One wonders why they did not learn when they were students.

Benjamin Disraeli said, “A University should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning”. By restricting choice for some, Sunak will reduce their light and liberty, which will be detrimental to learning.

The Tories want to make it darker and less free.

They should drop this policy now, and focus on more real and urgent problems.

P.S. if you want to try out studying or learn something new, perhaps for a change of career and perhaps not, try the Open University’s OpenLearn website or the Khan Academy in America or one of many MOOC providers around the world such as Future Learn — they have some free courses too, though the trend seems to be for them to seek to earn more money. Free courses are not cheap to run.



Sue Nethercott

Open University BA, UMIST MSc, OU BSc Environmental Studies. Interests: environment, COVID19. Double #ostomate. Thom Hartmann’s newsletter editor. Views my own.