As university students across the UK collect their awards, it’s time for government to value knowledge more than economic returns, says Joseph Kelly

Yesterday I stood in Liverpool’s magnificent Metropolitan Cathedral and watched hundreds of proud parents and family members who had gathered for the Liverpool Hope University Summer Graduation ceremony. In what has become a notable event combining solemnity and celebration, there was hardly a dry eye in the house as one after another, some 400 students processed up to be admitted to their various degrees.

Yesterday’s students were particularly outstanding in that they had fought their way through to their degrees with the Covid pandemic at their backs, the UK having gone into full lockdown almost on the day they were due to start their courses. The decision on whether or not to go into heavily isolated student accommodation and the fear and uncertainty surrounding the deadly new disease changed the university experience utterly, and those who graduated yesterday should be applauded as much for their bravery and determination as for their studious efforts.

In the Opening Address for the Congregation of the Conferment of Degrees, Hope Vice Chancellor and Rector Professor Claire Ozanne acknowledged that there may have been many moments when students felt like giving up.

“But you have fought through and worked hard to reach this point. You’ve demonstrated your extraordinary resilience and immense adaptability. This dedication will put you in good stead for the future.”

Her sentiments were echoed by one of the senior Hope University tutors I spoke to earlier in the day, who had waxed lyrical about the university, its relationship to the great city of Liverpool and the mighty River Mersey that flows through it to the sea.

“We draw a lot of inspiration from the Mersey,” he said. “Our students come down a river, pass through our hands and then rush out into the great wide sea that is to be their lives. We do our best to make sure they’re equipped for that great journey of endless possibilities.”

As I listened I couldn’t help reflecting back to the comments that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had made just 48 hours earlier, accusing universities of “taking advantage” of students with ‘rip off” degree courses that the government claims have either high dropout rates or a low proportion of graduates going on to a “professional” job.

The ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees complaint is a political narrative that’s been rumbling on for decades and was very common currency in the 1970s and 80s, when Britain was in all kinds of upheaval. It’s rolled out less often these days because frankly successive governments have smashed up so much of our further education system, and funding cuts have forced many institutions to strip down learning and education to the bare minimum anyway.

There has always been a stark tension between education as a conveyor belt to employment and tax contribution, and education as a contributor to the public good. However, defining which subjects fall into which category is all but impossible, just as education itself is no guarantor of worth and public service.

When asked on Tuesday by the Good Morning Britain programme to define what the government meant by ‘bad’ degrees, education minister Robert Halfon wasn’t prepared to name a single subject, or any criteria by which to measure the ‘worthy’ learning specialisms.

Listening to subject areas being called out in Liverpool Cathedral yesterday no doubt Mr Sunak would have been impressed by Business Management, Marketing, Politics and Law, just as he might have pondered the worth of Sports Rehabilitation or Clinical Nutrition. But who are we to judge? A clinical nutritionist may go on to contribute far more to the public good than a business manager, or a sports injury specialist far more than any marketing executive. Put simply, it’s not the subject you study that matters, but what you do with what you have learned and it’s not for any of us to presume – far less to restrict – what any young person is inspired to learn about.

It’s also worth reminding the government that many of the degree subjects that are sometimes floated up as being ‘worthy’ are those with the biggest drop-out rates, and the lowest professional career outcomes.

The trouble with government perceptions about university education is that politicians invariable confuse and conflate all sorts of anecdotes and prejudices with the system, and this itself gets enmeshed with ideologies about employment, the economic value of the person to the state, and the general worth (or not) of public service.

At the commencement of yesterday’s ceremony I stood by the processional ramp that leads from the lower levels of Liverpool Cathedral to the main auditorium and watched the long trail of academics from Liverpool Hope University as they made their way to the ceremony. As well as a bewildering miscellany of robes, trims, tabs and bonnets to denote their specialisms, the wearers were an equally diverse mix of individuals. It would have been completely impossible – and utterly inappropriate – to make any assumptions about the worth of anyone’s lifetime of commitment to their own work, and to their efforts to educate others. We should all remember that the smallest moment of discovery on a lifetime’s journey can change the world forever.

Sadly for UK governments of the post-Thatcher, there hasn’t been such foresight and their focus has been largely on creating ‘positive economic outcomes’ from investment in the university system. The rot really began to set in when the Blair government introduced ‘top-up’ fees in 1998, arguing that that those who went to university obviously went on to better paid jobs and were therefore able to stump up more cash for the government during their successful careers. This move effectively marked out the university system as a ‘market’ and has consigned all future students to an onerous burden of debt and worry.

University students graduating this year are on average taking with them nearly £30k of debt to deal with; by contrast during my undergraduate years in Oxford in the early 1980s we were actually given a grant to study, and I finished my course with more money in my bank account than when I went up!

According to the government’s own figures £20 billion a year is loaned currently to around 1.5 million students in England each year, and the value of outstanding loans at the end of March 2023 reached a staggering £206 billion. Even more frightening, the Government forecasts that the value of outstanding loans will have climbed to and eye-watering £460 billion by the mid-2040s. The forecast average debt among the cohort of borrowers who started their course in 2022/23 is £45,600 when they complete their course in full.

This reveals the real motive behind the rhetoric, as the government is only too well aware of the looming economic catastrophe that the present university education system is creating – a whole generation of our brightest young people burdened almost certainly for life by onerous debt repayments, and a hole in the fiscal budget wider than the Mersey. In the face of that, it’s no surprise that we’re hearing a revival of bullish talk about culling further education opportunities down to just those that will deliver high-speed fiscal returns.

The critical flaw in such thinking is that it reduces our talented youngsters to an economic commodity, without appreciating that even the most esoteric of studies can not only contribute immensely to the common god, but can deliver significant economic returns as well. In fact, given the lamentable failure of ‘high value’ career paths such as finance, administration and government to deliver a stable, successful society, it is high time that Mr Sunak and his ministers gave very serious consideration to the promotion of university subjects that have a clear and potential benefit to the greater good of society, rather than just those supporting the short-term economy.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian