This week’s political argument kicked off with university degrees. For students, it’s a hot topic – especially those graduating this year. Aside from having their university life torn from them by covid lockdowns, leavers now find themselves graduating without knowing if they have a degree or not. Striking university markers have put the cherry on the cake of an expensive 3 years of mainly online tuition.

University tuition fees were introduced by Tony Blair under Labour. At £3,500 a year, they were not sustainable, and Vince Cable, former Lib Dem leader and then head of the department delivering universities, hiked the fee to £6,000, up to £9,000 if the university could prove it supported poorer students. Unsurprisingly, they all charged the full whack, and aside from a couple of changes (including hiking the fees to £9,250) all remains the same.

The fees and other costs mount up as a debt. When a student graduates, they could have over £40,000 of debt. Repayment behaves like a tax and starts when a graduate earns £27,295, at 9% of taxable income about that rate.

But here’s the problem.

The rationale for charging fees was always that we needed to get more people into university. Graduates are more economically productive, so society benefits without incurring huge debt on the wider taxpayers – many of whom do not have a degree.

But, whilst an engineer or doctor will relatively quickly repay their student debt because the economy pays higher wages for skills it values, there are lots of degrees whose graduates struggle to achieve even average pay. The graduate never reaches the repayment threshold and so we all as taxpayers must pick the bill of degrees society doesn’t need or even want.

So why are universities providing these degrees? Because universities, keen to generate income, see a business opportunity and are eager to sell product.

The government has decided to stamp out this cynical practice, but Labour disagrees. They think it appropriate to allow universities to sell poor quality degrees to unsuspecting teenagers in the name of opportunity equality.

Degrees are a good thing and British universities are incredibly well respected for a whole range of disciplines. But if we are using taxpayers’ cash to subsidise degrees, we must be confident that both the taxpayer gets value for money, and the student is not saddled with unrepayable debt. This is a problem that is long overdue for resolution.