Graduation caps

Mickey Mouse’s Oxford Clubhouse

Nicola Biggerstaff

This week the UK government announced a crackdown on so-called ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’, generally defined as those university courses which offer little in terms of employment outcomes or earning potential upon their completion. However, with no minister on the press rounds this week able to provide a specific definition of the types of degrees they wish to crack down on, or indeed define any criteria or parameters for this policy, it’s time to explore what they truly mean with this rhetoric.

I found the interview of Education Minister Robert Halfon MP on Monday’s edition of Good Morning Britain particularly damning in laying out the issues with this policy. He claimed that universities will be forced, under this new policy, to limit the number of students enrolling on these courses, but couldn’t name an example. That a lack of earning potential for the first fifteen months after graduation would constitute such a degree, but couldn’t name an earning threshold or whether generally low paying jobs, such as those in social care, would be exempt. In less than ten minutes, the policy had been effectively called out for what it is: more hogwash in an attempt to distract the public from the real issues at play

They claim that cutting numbers of those on these courses will eventually lead to wage increases, at a time when they are also asking us not to pursue higher wages to protect from inflation (an economic mistruth which was recently disproven by the IMF themselves). They also lamented at the waste of money these degrees were, that students are paying over the odds and not getting value for money from their higher education. How conveniently they forget, it seems, that it was their own coalition government that oversaw the hike in tuition fees that has left thousands of UK students in crippling debt and decimated the reputations of everyone involved in the eyes of the younger generation.

On the face of it, this latest attempt at a policy appears to be yet another cynical attempt by the UK government to discredit the next generation and their pursuit of the creative industries. Arts funding has been decimated under this government, in a sector which is reaching an apex on its future.

In the wake of the strike action taken by the WGA and SAG-AFTRA unions for screen writers and actors in the United States over pay and conditions, namely the fair compensation of writers and actors for streaming royalties, and the use of Artificial Intelligence to replace background actors, human skills in the industry are clearly still in high demand from those who keep it going: the actors and writers themselves. But would a degree in filmmaking and screenwriting from the University of the West of Scotland,or a qualification in animation from City of Glasgow College, be considered too ‘Mickey Mouse’ if the decreasing funding of the arts has made jobs in the industry so competitive that some students fail to break into it? The answer to us is an obvious, resounding no, but clearly not to those who announce policies without thinking them through first.

In fact, many of our own MPs, many of the government’s own party, may hold what could constitute a ‘Mickey Mouse degree’, in that there are no set educational requirements to become an elected official, including MP, minister, or even to be Prime Minister, and are therefore not getting value for money from their degrees. That’s right, Rishi Sunak himself is technically in an ‘unskilled job’. Just another PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) from Oxford to fill the role, just like twenty nine of his predecessors, who instead use their time to rile up public factions with dog whistles and harmful rhetoric, instead of using their education to effectively govern the country.

One of the other suggestions that jumped out at me from the disastrous GMB interview was the hypothetical posed by presenter Susanna Reid to the minister, that perhaps someone with a history degree who ends up working in a shop after fifteen months may be considered to have a ‘Mickey Mouse degree’. Well, let me tell you, as someone with a history degree who, thanks to the UK and Sottish government’s disastrous Covid responses crippling the economy and job market, was still working in a shop after fifteen months, I feel I now have a personal stake in this debate.

No, I probably wasn’t hired here at Common Weal for my ability to analyse the American response to the crisis in Yugoslavia, or the influence of Thatcher’s personal experience as a child of war on the British response to the reunification of Germany, the topics of by Bachelor’s and Master’s theses respectively. And no, said Masters, in Diplomacy and International Security, may not be getting put to use at a Scottish public policy think tank either. However, the skills I learned over what were the most eye-opening five years of my life are still being put to use here. I gather information, I research, I analyse, I write. And it was my university education that showed me how.

Yet, according to vague Tory interpretations, I may be considered one of those students failed by my university, when this is far from the case. I have no regrets about where my stint in academia has led me, even if it may not be what I envisioned all those years ago, arriving at my first lecture all bright-eyed and bushy tailed. I am still pursuing a fulfilling, life-affirming career, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

But there is an even deeper, darker issue at play here when they attempt to downplay our worthwhile education.

It is often claimed that when the necessity of working to live is taken from a person, when all their needs are taken care of, they will pursue the arts. Now, with access to education widening, and in a world where both traditional and modern media hold a stronger place in our hearts, said pursuit has become accessible for almost anyone.

This is what truly terrifies them: the thought of someone from a less fortunate background being able to work hard enough to join them in their ranks. We’re becoming educated, too educated, and now their power and influence over us is under threat. It intimidates them, and now they want to crack down in retaliation. How dare we begin to use our skills to call out our government like it is, to continually humiliate them online and in-person. Sit down and be quiet.

This only becomes more evident when we consider another claim from them, as part of these proposals, that they want to place more value on vocational qualifications. Fine, we will always encourage that here at Common Weal, but do not use them to claim that any sort of education has an inherent value attached to it, that one person’s education is somehow better than another’s because they went somewhere else, or studied something else.

The inherent, shared skills in critical thinking and analysis that we all learn on these courses, whether through History, Social Care, PPE or Golf Management, are still enough to allow any educated person to see right through this government’s classist façade.

3 thoughts on “Mickey Mouse’s Oxford Clubhouse”

  1. Ian Davidson

    If my fading memory is correct: Tories who abolished polytechnics and created more universities; Tories who abolished Council for National Academic Awards (external standards for polytechnics); Tories who encouraged expansion of higher education (really to mask the long term decline of good job opportunities for young people leaving school?). One of the reasons why we have so many (in my view over-specific) job/sector degrees now is that education sector felt under pressure to be offering more “vocational” courses. Problem is that economy changes quickly and what was in demand 10 years ago may now look “silly”? Also unintended consequences: it is complex but there is some merit in the argument that making nursing a 100% graduate entry profession has reduced the potential recruitment base, the consequences of which we are now living with? I am still in favour of generalist higher education degrees with specialisation coming later via post-graduate studies/experience (exceptions being medicine, law etc). There is massive demand for skilled labour in crafts and trades, including “Green New Deal” and that should tie up with the currently struggling FE college sector. There is of course too much academic snobbery but this reflects the wider snobbery and elitism of our society. As for the PPE Brigade, they should be required to undertake specific post graduate studies/work experience in politics and administration before being let loose on our society! Politicians and public servants need to know lots of things: human resources, financial management, human rights/admin law, sociology.. and they also need good interpersonal skills, empathy and self awareness (to weed out the sociopaths!). They also need technical skills for relevant specialisms rather than the PPE route which per se produces brilliant debaters and writers: i.e. generalist brain boxes who don’t understand science, technology, engineering in the physical universe! I suspect this latest “plan” will come to nought, or very little?

  2. Sounds like a flash-in-the pan newspaper headline grab unworthy of comment.

    A degree in philosophy, which many would say is practically useless, tends to be one of the most renumerative qualifications, but a degree in Media Studies doesn’t bode well, although it is more practical. The main thing is that universities are laws unto themselves, setting their own courses and their own examinations. My degree cert tells me that I am a member of one university (in Latin). It’s not a national qualification – it’s a club membership. A degree from St Andrews is way more valuable than the same named degree from the University of the West of Scotland because it isn’t the same degree, and everyone knows it. It’s not snobbery – it’s real, and it is a world-wide phenomenon. It also makes a joke of people quoting graduate numbers.

  3. florian albert

    Despite – or because of – policy of encouraging 50% of young people to attend university, we still have, both in Scotland and the rest of the UK, a disproportionately low skill, low wage and low productivity society; I remember Harold Wilson promising to deal with this problem before the 1964 general election.
    As the New Statesman pointed out, in the 29 years from 1990, the number of students getting First Class Honours degrees increased by 19 fold.
    At the same time, further education and technical education lost out.

    There has been a considerable down side to the expansion in Higher Education and ignoring it wont do.
    Further, this expansion has benefited the middle class far more than the working class.
    As for the idea that people in Scotland are becoming ‘too educated’, I would like to see some evidence.

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