It is summer in the northern hemisphere and that means a lengthy holiday for university managers, academics and students. But just because the halls of learning are relatively empty that doesn’t mean higher education has slipped out of sight and mind. It hasn’t.

As David Morris writes in Wonkhe, there is now a pressure on UK universities to demonstrate that they are good value – that they are “worth the costs incurred by students, graduates, and the taxpayer and invested in them”.

People tend to not like paying large amounts for essential items, and resent those who make them pay it, he says – “just look at the public goodwill out there for landlords and estate agents.”

“UK universities point to their continued world class status, but the benefits of this are simply too abstract for many politicians and the general public.”

What is evident, he says, is a growing political dissatisfaction with how universities are funded, what and how they teach, how their staff are paid, and how graduates feel about the value of their degrees.

“None of this is new to the sector, but the debate does seem to be gathering a new intensity.”

Meanwhile, in a lengthy article for Prospect magazine, Alison Wolf argues it is time to reconsider how universities are run.

The UK, she says, is unique in the extent to which almost all higher education takes place in traditional universities – “all of them doing everything that universities do”.

Since 1976 the UK has created 89 additional universities and not a single major alternative institution, she writes, asking – “Has that been a good idea?”

“No it has not. It is extremely expensive, a bad bargain for the taxpayer and the student.

“And it means that we lack, and indeed have progressively destroyed, other institutions which can deliver parts of tertiary education better.”

For English school-leavers, she says, expensive degrees are the only serious game in town, but around one in three graduates “now do jobs which are clearly ‘non-graduate’ in their content and demands”.

“The graduates who are stuck entering data or serving lattes suggest that many of those extra years in the lecture halls are indeed merely raising the qualifications bar, rather than generating economic growth via new skills.”

In England, she writes, university students typically graduate with income contingent large debts, justified by the notion that having a degree “pays” in later life.

“Yet there are universities in England where average graduate earnings are no higher than those for non-graduates.”

However, while a degree may not guarantee a great salary and a stimulating job, increasingly “the lack of one closes many doors”.

Further reading:

David Morris, Wonkhe – Why don’t they like us? A terrible two months for universities in the news

Alison Wolf, Prospect – Degrees of failure: why it’s time to reconsider how we run our universities