Is University Really Worth It? review: Geoff Norcott is right – degrees offer little value now

Geoff Norcott takes a look at whether university is still worth the investment
Geoff Norcott takes a look at whether university is still worth the investment - Eddie Stafford/BBC
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Three decades after I left university, I can’t remember much of what I studied. The books I do remember reading have not come in handy since. At no point in my working life have I needed an in-depth knowledge of Terry Eagleton’s guide to literary theory. Yet, until a few years ago, if you had asked me the question in the title of Geoff Norcott’s BBC Two documentary, Is University Really Worth It?, I would have said a resounding yes.

University taught me independence. I learned to delve deeply into a subject, and to manage my own time. And it allowed me to have three years of fun before knuckling down to a lifetime of responsibilities. Crucially, I also did this in an age of student grants and cheap accommodation.

But now? Tuition fees are more than £9,000 a year. The average student rent has gone up by nearly 15 per cent in the last two years. So many people now take degrees – thanks to the New Labour ideal – that some of them aren’t worth the paper on which they’re written.

According to one statistic cited here, 69 per cent of graduates think their time at university wasn’t worth it. Norcott, a comedian and author, was once a teacher who bought into Tony Blair’s mantra and encouraged his pupils into higher education.

For this documentary, he met up with some of them and heard uncomfortable truths about how they had felt pushed into following the university path. Travelling the country to meet today’s cohort, Norcott met a medical student struggling on a food budget of £10 per week, and a Sheffield University society that meets to feed the ducks – a way of socialising without spending money on booze.

Norcott approached everyone with interest rather than mockery. The BBC should use him a lot more: what could have been a dry subject was approached in an entertaining and accessible way. He is funny without trying too hard, and serious without being po-faced. Elsewhere, Norcott met a politician talking up the benefits of universities for the local economy, a company of young plumbers who are doing well for themselves (no need for a degree there) and an AI robot that could in a few years’ time be doing the jobs that undergraduates hope to get.

There was a bit too much going on here for a one-hour documentary, but it was difficult to argue with Norcott’s conclusions: that the cost of university has gone up while the value has gone down, and that teenagers need to think through the pros and cons more clearly than the older generations ever did.


Is University Really Worth It? is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm and on BBC iPlayer now

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