The insanity of university degrees

I noticed an article in LSE (London South East): “Tuition fees would drop to £6,000 under Labour”. (

This news shocked me, as back in my days, students weren’t expected to to pay tuition fees. Picking Birmingham University pretty much at rnadom, for example, revealed that their undergraduate fee per year is £9,000. Other universities are similar. Why do they charge such high figures? My guess was “because they can”. It turns out I was wrong, though, and it is because “the University of Birmingham is committed to providing the highest quality of teaching and learning, and delivering sustained investment in your wider student experience. ” ( In 2012, Sheffield University said that the maximum £9000 would be levied, saying that the decision was made “in the context of an uncertain higher education environment”, adding: “We now face a real challenge not of our choosing, but one which we owe it to future students to accept.” ( The last phrase of that sentence doesn’t even make any sense. It appears to be saying “it is in the students best interest that we charge them as much as possible”.

And yes, I am being sarcastic. The quotes are real, though.

I’ll be honest here. I can’t even begin to think why anyone would be prepared to spending that kind of money. That’s £27k, before they even nickel-and-dime you on extras like graduation fees, and to say nothing about living expenses. It’s insane. The standard argument is that graduates earn more. Still, that’s a hardly a sure thing, and starting the game 30 grand in the hole strikes me as mad. The politicians and talking heads don’t seem to call this out for the lunacy it is, though.

The whole situation was better when I was a lad. Back then, having a university degree meant something. Nowadays it is just a foot in the door for a middle-class job. It was also recognised that there were two streams of tertiary education: universities for the academically inclined, and polytechnics for vocational studies. It is a system that needs to be brought back. It feels more “honest” to me. Polytechincs had a bad wrap for being “for the thickos”. Some people are just smarter than others. Deal with it.

Having said that, the polytechnic system makes perfect sense to me. The world still needs vocationally-trained individuals. Polytechnics can provide the kind of environment that isn’t available elsewhere. So they serve a noble goal. Different people have different skills. Everybody in particular, and society as a whole, is best served by being given the opportunites that suit them best. Not everyone is a genius, and it’s dishonest to pretend that we are all equal intellectually.

In my view, we should return to basics. Schooling to 16 years of age should give you all the education you need for life. Then, if they feel so inclined, they should do A-levels if they want to pursue academic studies, or else study for vocational subjects like City and Guilds. If they are not interested in study, then they should not be pressured into it. In my admittedly limited contact, I think C&G qualifications are an excellent way of training people where they actually have to learn something in a particular area.

Here’s Peter Schiff’s take on college: Schiff usually talks about gold, and is an advocate of the Austrian School of economic thinking.

Aswath Damodaran has also written about colleges:

College is a Scam:

That’s my spleen vented, then.


About mcturra2000

Computer programmer living in Scotland.
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2 Responses to The insanity of university degrees

  1. Wexboy says:

    Most US students can only dream of the fees you’re quoting..! 😉 But ignoring the capitalist rapacity of US fees, I’d consider America to be far more socialist than Europe when it comes to third level education – US government & society now like to insist everybody can & should have equal access to a university education. Unfortunately, a trillion+ of US college debt & rising is a reminder the US isn’t as rich as it thinks it is…

    This idea of ‘equal opportunity for all’ has also killed off any notion of vocational education & training. As you say, lots of people really don’t belong in universities…but in the US they now end up in community & online colleges instead, which masquerade as universities (and try to charge accordingly), and all they receive is a meaningless qualification, no vocation or work skills, and lots of student debt. It’s really just a horrible bait & switch…

    But there are some signs people are waking up to this deceptions – let’s hope so, because it would be a friggin’ tragedy to see Europe heading down this very same path…

    • mcturra2000 says:

      I also think it’s engrained into people’s thinking that “that’s what you do”. They’ve forgotten to ask “how much”. After all, if I said to someone, “I’ve got something to sell you. It will cost you 3 years of your life, and you will come out £30k worse off than when you started”, Whatever it was I was selling, it would have to be pretty damm good!

      It reminds me of Howard Marks: there’s nothing so risky as the perception that there is no risk. In education, the equivalent might be: there’s nothing so valuable as to justify any price.

      I think half the problem comes from the parents, who pressure their kids into unwise choices. I am nearly 50, and whilst I don’t have any kids, I’m worldy wise enough to have picked up at least some tricks along the way. What I’ve learned it that there is a lot of uncertainty in life, and that I don’t know everything. When I see parents, or adults in general, take fixed rigid views about what’s right and wrong, it occurs to me that, to a large extent, their beliefs are merely one of prejudice, rather than solid judgements.

      I think that investing is valuable in what it teaches one about decision-making. There’s rarely any absolutes.

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