In this month's duel, David Willetts and Katie Morley go head-to-headby David Willetts, Katie Morley / March 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
David Willetts: Yes
There is a new political fashion—“Eduscepticism.” The edusceptics dismiss higher education in a way they would not dare dismiss any other educational stage. In the past, the sceptics argued against raising the school leaving age to 16 saying it was a waste of time. The sceptics today are just as wrong. The evidence is overwhelming—going to university is good for you—and good for the rest of us.
Because we are again arguing about how to pay for university there is a focus on economic gains for individuals. Graduates enjoy higher employment rates and higher pay. The average graduate under 30 earns £25,000 as against £19,000 for a non-graduate.
But the economic benefits go much wider. Universities boost city economics—towns and cities from Chester to Exeter are reaping the benefits from having a growing university. Evidence from the United States shows that, in towns with lots of graduates, non-graduates earn more as well and the Exchequer gains from the increased tax. The OECD even uses the proportion of the workforce who are graduates as one of their indicators of an economy’s long-term growth rate.
There are non-economic gains too—better health, improved life expectancy, less depression and obesity. And society reaps wider benefits with higher tolerance, lower crime and a greater propensity to vote.
The edusceptics say this is due to “prior selection”—university students being luckier and more able. But, where possible, researchers compare people who are similar such as identical twins, or people in systems that allocate places by lottery. And isn’t it arrogant to say graduates are like this anyway? Far better to recognise that three years away from home during these formative years changes you. I argue in my book that they change you just as much as the first three years: you do actually learn stuff. Moreover it’s the only stage of education where people from tough areas out-perform others. If only other stages of education could achieve the same.
Universities have their faults and can let people down. But one survey of graduates found 96 per cent of them would still do it if they had their time again.