In the late 1990s the UK government set out to expand the proportion of school leavers going to University. At the same time, the fees paid by UK students went from nothing - in fact my generation were given 'grants' - to about USD14K per year. This set about a massive expansion in the sector.
So, what impact has this had. Whereas most graduates once landed a 'good' job, now it is more of a struggle. Employers complain that standards of students have dropped. Students now expect more for their money and lecturers get more workload and are paid relatively badly as their wages are eroded by inflation. Despite the oversupply of graduates, there are gaps, for example there are a lot of empty IT jobs and a lot of unemployed computer science graduates. Why is this?
If we see the 'cost' of education as an investment to get a 'good' job, then we have to ask the question - are the Universities teaching the right things. After all, their customers' customer are employers. There is a temptation to see this as pushing 'vocational' subjects - actually I think what employers mostly want is people who can write, research, count and think for themselves - all the hallmarks of a first class academic education - alongside some specialist skills.
Perhaps the issue with education is not the cost, but the value it delivers. For the elite universities, their value is as much as a mechanism in filtering out the 'best' students for employers, as in the material they teach. Surely there is an opportunity for the wider body of universities to redefine the value of what they teach so that the students, their employers and society recognize real benefits. After all 'best' is a subjective judgment. Then they may consistently see their investment as a wise one, with the clarity of hindsight.
I teach students here, and sadly, I don't see them receiving these clear benefits (despite the best efforts of myself and my colleagues). The issue is about the mental model of Higher Education and the way it is systematized in recruitment, pedagogy and administration, and this is what needs to change.