Saturday, 18 August 2012

A University Education Should Not Be a Social Necessity

A very interesting and thought-provoking article was published recently by Neil Blower of the Fabian Society. He writes of a proposal to attach "veteran's champions" to local councils to fight for the rights of former servicemen and women. I am of course strongly biased in favour of such a proposal, despite the obvious issues that arise whenever there is pressure to champion one sector of society above others. Mr Blower is of course correct when he notices the challenges that face veterans today, many of whom join the services at a young age and leave with a far below-average experience of the requirements of civilian life. Where he falls short, I feel, is in his citation of the commonly-held belief of the universal necessity and suitability of a university education, which he sees as the ideal solution to this.

Statistically, the most significant advances in science and technology are achieved by a very tiny percentage of the population that emerges largely independently of financial resources and which is largely self-taught. This is a distressing truth, which unfortunately does little to commend the ability of our universities to inspire and improve our finest minds. It should be obvious that the intellectual health of a nation largely dependant on its ability to find these individuals and to enable them to work as efficiently as possible. This is not assisted by striving to drag everyone through university, which reduces the scope of many courses to match the average person's understanding and interest and, by greatly increasing class sizes, drastically lowers the quality of education provided. Placing everyone at the same standard encourages apathy among the most able and does little to benefit our best and brightest.

Even from the standpoint of the average Brit, completely open access would do a great deal of harm. Take this very silly article by Peter Cohan, which suggests that humanities degrees should be scrapped on account of their failure to lead directly to employment. Perhaps Peter is in a better place to offer judgement than most of us, having a BA in the History of Art from a liberal arts college himself, though it seems more likely that his opinions reflect a general trend in higher education within the United States. More so than in Britain, tertiary education is viewed as an essential rite of passage, justifying astronomical fees even when matched with such poor employment prospects. The US population has almost the highest percentage of graduates in the world, and yet he is surprised that having a degree does not automatically grant preferential treatment when it comes to employment. Even those who ultimately decide not to undertake higher education in such an environment are placed at a disadvantage, lacking qualifications seen as an essential part of civilised life, resulting both in them being overlooked for jobs as a direct result of this and suffering from a poverty of ambition by seemingly falling short of the standards held by most of their peers.

What this attitude leads to is the sort of reverse reasoning that concludes that, since a university degree is essential, it must therefore provide the kind of necessary training required for immediate employment. This leads to the dangerous belief that education is the equivalent of training, and suddenly all intellectual pursuits that don't directly lead to a career in business become worthless. The outcome of this is a tragic disdain for such disciplines as History and the Social Sciences, the very subjects that lead to further understanding of the operation of humankind as a species, and which make blog posts like this one possible. Possible solutions to this have been offered, such as the study which this week suggested that business schools be jettisoned by universities into the world of private enterprise. This would supposedly give students the necessary experience of the hard realities of the business world and free them from the clutches of the lazy student lifestyle. There may be some scope for this if business degrees are to be seen as a special case (they under-perform terribly at the moment, prompting many employers to doubt their worth entirely), although I suspect the experience encountered with "hard realities" may be more practical than planned. Noting as well the complex funding needed to avoid limiting access to only the most wealthy, this plan for now remains little more than a pipe dream.

Financial restrictions to entry are patently not the answer. A YouGov survey recently revealed that the complexity of finding funding to pursue degrees is putting more and more young people off applying for university places. That is, people are being discouraged from attending university solely for financial reasons, entirely interdependently of intellectual ability. This is a disaster. Already a decline in funding for graduate degrees has made the leap to performing valuable research impossible for many. This has resulted in the scandalous "broken bridge" to PhD and DPhil level that was noted by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford in his speech last year, as it was discovered that there was almost no funding available for masters programmes in the Humanities and Social Sciences. This inevitably leads to further selection according to financial ability, with many places being given to second-choice candidates, with ability to pay trumping academic quality.

Markets do many things very well. With a few drawbacks, they are excellent at encouraging competitiveness and at ensuring resources are delivered to those who will make the most efficient use of them. They do not however work very well when used to select people for tertiary education. Prospective students are for the most part at the beginning of their working lives. Lacking the opportunity to have built up their personal finances, they must rely instead on the affluence of their parents and the meagre generosity of banks (for graduate degrees, only Barclays, the Co-op and RBS currently offer career development loans, and even then they are only appropriate for a tiny percentage of qualifications). This is a terrible criteria for selection and can do nothing but harm to both the economic and social well-being of a country.

On the other hand, Mr Blower condescendingly declares that "caring for people is surely very much the purview of the left". There is little caring about watering down research at a time of economic hardship, when high-quality innovation is needed most, and about creating false expectation with worthless degrees. There was nothing caring, either, about the Labour party's introduction of tuition fees, which forced a huge, productive and vital sector of the population into crippling debt. There is no easy solution to this, but a good start would be to discourage a US-style mindset, encouraging on-the-job training for those who see education only as a direct route to employment in a single field. Also, in tandem with Michael Gove's recent actions in secondary education, institutions might be served by becoming more selective. Such a move would be wildly unpopular however, and does not play very well with recent cuts to university budgets.

Ultimately, a good principle to follow is that tertiary education should be open to all, although equally that it is not appropriate for everyone. Education enriches not only the individuals who possess it, but a country as a whole, leading people to become better informed in their political decisions, to relate better to others and to develop a greater stake in society. As Mr Blower rightly says, it grants, focus and purpose. While it continues to be viewed by many as merely a necessary evil, a tool on the path to a job, it loses a great deal of this essence, delivering instead only disappointment and a negative bank balance.

Acknowledgement is due to Professor Peter Kruschwitz of the University of Reading for his valuable insights into university funding, provided for the purposes of this post.