DEBATE: Government to cut the number of university courses

Gillian Keegan MP, parliamentary private secretary to the Treasury and co-author of the foreword to the Onward report, says YES.

The government should cut the number of low-value university places and steer people towards better options. Analysis of government data by the think tank Onward finds that going to university won’t be financially worthwhile for up to a quarter of students. They will be; left with low earnings which don’t justify high debts.


While the number of students in medicine, maths, sciences and economics do well after they leave, those on arts, media studies and psychology courses do badly. The majority of graduates from creative arts courses are not earning enough to pay anything back even 10 years after they left uni. The cost to the taxpayer is why fees are so expensive for other students.


If we could steer people towards either better university courses or advanced technical options like graduate apprenticeships, we could cut the costs of going to university – the Onward report shows how we could halve the number that students have to pay back with a 50 per cent graduate tax cut.

Dan Davies, managing director and head of training at Frontline Analysts, says NO.


The government cannot pick winners in university education any more than it can in industry.

For example, communication arts at a former polytechnic might sound like an excellent candidate for the chop. But that was the course (at Sheffield Hallam) that gave us Nick Park and Aardman Animation of Wallace and Gromit fame; and a media industry cluster that’s generated enough revenue to pay for thousands of student loan write-offs.

Creative arts are a hits-based business, with a very fat tailed-distribution of returns. You can’t tell what the true cost to the economy is; unless you look at the system as a whole. And if you look at the whole creative sector, the economy gets a pretty good return on its education subsidy.

Education isn’t like other government programmes; it’s more like venture capital than infrastructure investment. We should take lots of small risks and let the decisions be; taken by people with skin in the game.