What's the point of university?

Eight universities are under investigation for providing poor quality degrees. The Office for Students has sent inspectors in to investigate whether undergraduates are getting decent value in return for the huge debts they rack up to get their degrees. For years, there’s been concern about so-called “Mickey Mouse” degrees that do nothing to boost job prospects.

But the expansion of universities was rooted in a grand ambition to create a better-educated workforce and to turbo-charge social mobility; a wider variety of degree courses, it was thought, would offer something for everyone. Surely it's positive that more young people now get an opportunity that years ago was offered only to a privileged few? University is about more than boosting the student’s future earnings; it’s about learning to think critically, gaining independence and broadening horizons.

Some, though, believe we have too many universities competing for customers by offering firsts to failures. Standards have fallen, and so many people now have degrees that they don’t count for much any more. Young people, it's claimed, are being misled into taking on huge personal debts, in return for three wasted years that will do little to improve their employability. Have we reached peak-university? Is it time to go into reverse? Are we reducing the value of higher education, or is the university experience valuable for its own sake? What's the point of university?

With Rachel Hewitt, Harry Lambert, Professor Dennis Hayes and Professor Edith Hall.

Producers: Jonathan Hallewell and Peter Everett
Presenter: Michael Buerk