Is a new Dark Age beckoning for higher education take-up?

Many believe that going to university is a rite of passage and that young people and their parents will always make sacrifices for it.

For years the Grand Tour of Europe was similarly considered an educational and social milestone for young, privileged men to complete their education, but its attraction waned.

When technology made rail and sea travel accessible, Thomas Cook aggregated tourists on package holidays and rich young men lost their interest in neo-classical culture: the Grand Tour gave way to the ‘Cook’s Tour’.

Enabling technology, applicant aggregation and a growing dissatisfaction with educational outcomes are with us today. There is no reason that one generation’s rite of passage won’t become another’s dead-end junction and some warning signs are already showing.

It is possible to speculate on how the educational enlightenment of the past 70 years could mark the beginnings of a new dark age.

It’s just not worth it

A February 2021 House of Commons Briefing in the United Kingdom showed part-time entrants to university had collapsed from 470,000 in 2009-10 to 235,000 in 2019-20. The number of ‘white working-class boys’ going to university continued to fall in 2021, with acceptances down 9.9% since 2014.

Across the Atlantic in the United States, higher education enrolment has fallen by an average of 1.67% per year since 2010.

Rumblings of discontent have been tracked in the US, with the Pew Research Center and Gallup finding declining confidence in higher education since 2015.

Some parts of the political spectrum are markedly more sceptical than others, but even where there is support, it has fallen in recent years.

A survey by the Bipartisan Policy Center and Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 29% of US adults did not think a college degree was ‘worth it’.

A OnePoll survey of UK postgraduates in 2021 found 46% did not think their university education was worth the money and over 30% did not need a degree to do their current job.

The Harris Poll in 2020 found 60% of student loan debtors in the US said their degree was not worth the student loan debt they had taken on. Whether it is the general public or the graduating class – scepticism is evident and increasing.

Government views are also shifting, with the UK removing the long term ambition of 50% of young people participating in higher education and calling it an “absurd mantra”.

When an education minister says that university education is not what the individual or country needs, is “low value” and carries an “inbuilt snobbishness”, it is difficult to see why the public should keep the faith.

All at a time when young people are graduating into a post-pandemic world which has brought new uncertainty to their first steps on the career ladder.

Zombie Gen Z to the Alpha Dawn

Generational shifts take time and if the average age of a new parent is around 28, we are seeing the last of Generation X’s (1965 to 1980) children going to higher education.

Those parents, along with the media and successive governments, told Gen Z (1997 to 2012) that a degree was the route to a career and a better life. Maybe that is why Gen Z didn’t question the aspirational mindset society encouraged when university was effectively free in the UK and you could even get a grant to cover living costs.

But the last of the Millennials, Gen Y (1981 to 1996), are finding out that traditional graduate industries are embracing the digital revolution and squeezing out many of the first steps on the career ladder.

Economic indicators point to young people today being worse off than their parents, unable to get into the housing market and reliant on the bank of mum and dad until well into their 20s. There is no reason to believe that the situation is going to improve any time soon.

Gen A (born from 2012), the children of Millennials, will be at undergraduate entry age around 2030, just as the demographic boom of the 2020s starts to go against UK universities.

A disenchanted Gen Y might be regretting the return on their own education investment and could advise Gen A to consider one of the many different paths available to them.

The bank of grandad and grandma (Gen X) will not stretch far enough to have much influence as health costs rise, life expectancy increases and the Asian century shifts the world’s economic centre of gravity.

Government is unlikely to help, as unpaid student debt in the UK is already £160 billion (US$215 billion) and forecast to grow to £560 billion by 2050.

The Higher Education Policy Institute has already suggested that students should start paying back their loans at a lower income threshold, which looks like both a cost saving to government and an acceptance that graduate earnings are going nowhere fast.

Alternatively, the Augar review recommendations could be adopted in full and domestic tuition fees slashed from £9,000 to £7,500, but, even if this does come to pass, Gen A could face the prospect of graduating with a large amount of student debt, that they start paying off earlier, at interest rates higher than today’s historic lows.

Right now, in the UK you seem to have more chance of driving a lorry than you do of obtaining a place on a graduate training scheme.

Much has been written about the ‘Future of Work’ becoming more skilled by 2030, probably sooner. While there is much evidence pointing towards a demand for graduate skills as a result of the fourth industrial revolution, what’s to say you cannot be trained on the job by your employer while earning, as opposed to taking three or four years out of the workforce to go to university?

Logistics companies, for instance, are likely to be willing to train people on the job and do a deal with Coursera or the next generation of online operators to upskill young people.

With the chance of learning a skill, having their education paid for and earning three years’ salary, the attraction of university life may be less evident to Gen A, particularly when they have grown up being told that employers see online degrees as the equal of in-person study.

Perceptions of degrees as the only gateway to a world of opportunity and a comfortable income may also come under increasing pressure. Research by the Higher Education Statistics Agency or HESA and Warwick University has suggested that in the UK, on average, graduates born in 1970 (Gen X) earned 19% more than non-graduates by the age of 26, compared to graduates born in 1990 (Gen Y) who only earned 11% more.

The UK’s Office for National Statistics says that 36.6% of all graduates but 45.4% of recent graduates (a figure that rises to 59% in Liverpool) are working in non-graduate jobs while, in the US, it is estimated that 33.8% of all graduates are in jobs not requiring a degree.

28 years later

It may seem fanciful to look even further forward, towards what generational changes may have occurred by 2045, but it is already 24 years since Tony Blair’s pledge to make university a reality for 50% of young people in the UK.

Society seemed in favour of the idea at the time, but by 2010 the Association of Graduate Recruiters, whose 750 employer members recruited 30,000 graduates a year, was already calling for the target to be scrapped because it devalued degrees.

The current UK government’s rejection of the target may be a watershed moment that reverses the trend for the coming 25 years.

It all leads to an intriguing and troubling proposition. A major indicator that someone will go to university is that at least one of their parents did, but if parents begin to counsel their children against attending we will be heading into totally new territory and a possible downward spiral.

University-educated parents actively briefing their children against going to university would be a cultural disruptor that makes full-time, in-person university attendance the exception rather than the norm.

Louise Nicol is founder of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD. Alan Preece is an expert in global education, business transformation and operational management and runs the blogging site View from a Bridge.