A two-part proposal for the overhaul of higher education. The first part seeks to create highly prestigious 1-year undergraduate courses to improve the quality and relevance of undergraduate education while reducing the time and cost of a degree. The second part is a new way to fund degrees in key sectors in which the UK needs more trained people, such as engineering and nursing, by offering to write-off a percentage of student debt for each year a graduate works in that key sector.
Efforts to date, from creating distance learning courses to private universities offering shorter courses, have failed to overhaul the behemoth that is the higher education sector.
Undergraduates, especially those in the ‘soft’ subjects such as humanities and social sciences, still spend three years on their course, often receiving only 10 teaching hours a week, learning things that are often largely irrelevant for the world of work.
The UK government has raised fees up to £10,000 per year, yet it has made little difference to the quality or variety of education on offer.
The problem remains that a degree is not valuable for what you learn on the course, but for the status of the university you attended and how the course you were on is perceived. So, a 2.1 from LSE is always likely to have more cachet than any degree from Nottingham Trent university, for example, however good Nottingham’s course.
Therefore, overhauling higher education is all about status, so I propose government works with a pilot university to create an incredibly tough, one-year course, which only the very top students in the country would be able to attend. Anyone who didn’t meet the requirements of the course at any stage would be kicked off it, so people would know if you graduated you were an impressive individual.
The course itself would combine a conventional academic degree alongside a whole host of employability skills, such as coding, report writing, and presentations, developed in partnership with leading employers to ensure it was highly relevant.
Because the course would be so well-designed and so tough, graduating would be a huge status symbol and demonstration of utility in the workplace, far more than a conventional degree. Therefore, and to further entice people onto the course, graduate employers would agree to guarantee a job to anyone who graduated.
So, you would have a phenomenally high-status degree, with a guaranteed job, all of which can be completed in one year; military academies such as Sandhurst have been doing this for decades, so it is eminently achievable.
And students would also leave with lower debt, and instead of spending another two years at university earning nothing, would have an extra two years of salaried employment.
Assuming a standard 3-year graduate leaves with debts of around £100,000, the one-year student would only have debt of £50,000 (it would be more expensive on a per year basis as it is more prestigious), but would have earned £70,000 in the two years after they graduated, making them £120,000 better off overall.
The launch of such a degree could quickly shift student demand away from traditional 3-year degrees, creating demand for a rapid roll-out of single year degrees in the same mould.
As the course would be high-status, it could be delivered by any institution, creating real competition in the higher education sector and forcing universities to respond quickly. It could therefore rapidly change the nature of undergraduate education, all by realising that the value of a degree is not what you learn, but the prestige that comes with it.
The second part of the proposal is to help fix key sectoral skill shortages in the UK, such as engineering and nursing, by establishing a new funding model where students borrow to fund their course as usual, but for every year they work in the sector they were trained in, some of the debt is written off.
It’s better than funding degrees outright, since in that case students could complete the free course and then leave their role soon after, wasting taxpayer resources.
With my proposed model, any student who did not go on to work in the role they were trained for would become liable to pay back the cost of their course to the state. However, unlike most such systems where an equal amount of debt is written off each year, this system would be exponential, with most of the debt paid off in the last two years.
For example, an engineering student gets a student loan for their course of £100,000 to cover all three years, with a contract that states if they work as an engineer for a decade the debt will be written off. In the first year, £3,000 is written off, by year 3 £10,000 is written off, by year 6 £25,000, year 8 £50,000, year 9 £75,000, and the final £25,000 is written off in the tenth year.
This creates a strong incentive for people to stay in their role to pay off their debt, and to do so for a full decade as most of the debt is paid off in the final 2 years. Students can still opt out of the scheme and pay off their loan as any other student does, maintaining choice, but it creates a strong incentive to work in the role.
By keeping people for a decade, they are likely to have moved up the ranks and be looking at starting a family, so are therefore more likely to continue to work in the sector for another decade due to their desire for job security and the cost of re-training for another sector.
To ensure legal compliance, any parental leave, maternity or paternity, would be acceptable within the scheme, but the individual would still have to return to work to pay off any remaining debt.