Students: Taking the “sensible” option in tough times.

By now, we’re all totally familiar with the debate about tuition fee rises. On one side, student groups argue it will have a detrimental impact on student numbers and university life. And on the other, the government is trying to convince the public that it will make universities more flexible, efficient and responsive. It’s far too soon to know who’s right. But there’s little doubt that the issue is already changing the shape of higher learning in Britain.

One of the clearest examples of this is that more and more students seem to be taking the “sensible” option – choosing degrees that have clearer professional paths than the murkier professional journeys promised by non-vocational qualifications. Predictably, applications for medicine, law and medicine are on the up, while the arts and humanities are down 14.6%. Weirdly, there has also been a big drop in students taking non-European languages – strange given the huge growth in Asia’s economic and political power.

Students are also starting to opt for two-year degrees, forgoing their traditional summer breaks to get through their courses more quickly. And with fees at £9,000 per year, who can blame them? Demand is also soaring for places in public/private partnerships: programmes in which a company pays a student through university in exchange for work – either while the student is studying, or for a minimum contract period after they graduate. The Open University and night courses are seeing numbers surge too. Once the exclusive domain of amateur enthusiasts and retired boffins, they’re now being seen as viable ways to increase professional skills without having the career disruption of a traditional residency-based degree.

On the face of things, all of this sounds like good news for the government and students: faster qualifications, less student debt, more flexible ways to up-skill. But there are long-term issues too. For example, a huge proportion of successful people end up in industries that have nothing to do with their degrees: the hedge fund manager who studied ancient Greek, the FTSE 100 CEO who studied political science, the TV producer who studied painting. So in being so vocationally focused, will we lose our most lateral and creative thinkers? And when it comes to shorter degrees, it’s one thing to cram in content, but what about those learning skills that are developed over a longer period? Of course, the effects of such issues are often difficult to prove. But they do at least show that the questions raised by the huge shake-ups in the university sector are more than just economic – they’re cultural too.

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