Have you ever reflected on why you chose to go to university? Have you ever felt the need to justify this choice? To the evergreen undergraduate, as the student loan burns a hole in your pocket and images of partying like it’s ‘Animal House’ abound in your mind, the decision may seem like a no-brainer. For the mainstream media, though, the appeal of higher education is not the hedonism and house parties, nor even an enthusiasm for a chosen subject, but the holy grail of (brace yourselves) ‘the graduate premium’. It is upon this mast that the current government has pinned its policies on tuition fees for, and on increased participation in, higher education. The graduate premium is the metric by which politicians sell the value of a degree. They argue that the nation’s young should be pouring money into the laps of our red-bricks and Russell Groups because the average graduate earns £160,000 more over the course of her lifetime than the non-graduate. Such is the pull of the graduate premium – ‘a projection of future higher earning potential related to the types of job and future career paths which are open to graduates’. Not quite the rhetorical flourish you heaped upon your UCAS personal statements to prove your enthusiasm and ambition, is it?
Upon these sturdy foundations of higher education policy, cracks have appeared. Graduate job vacancies have this year fallen by 28%, student debts may top £20,000 for the class of 2009, yet Vice-Chancellors are demanding more from your pocket. What’s more, apparently your degrees are worthless anyway! According to a recent article in The Times, ‘the economic returns for the average male arts graduate are negligible’ with ‘an earnings premium as low as £35,000′. The Spectator website hosts a report, gloomily entitled ‘Introducing the Recession Generation’, that goes further, stating that in the past ‘that number has even fallen into negative territory – meaning that the average school leaver could earn more than the average arts graduate’. These figures beg the question: why bother with such fruitless degrees at all?
I propose to ask a more important question: what is it that we really value about arts and humanities degrees? In the midst of this political and media storm, the most significant qualities of such courses are being ignored. Current concerns in the national media are no doubt fuelled by the staggering levels of debt-ridden graduates struggling to find work. As worrying as this is, it should not be accepted that the only value of a degree is the literal, economic meaning of the term.
Taking a degree is, of course, a significant financial commitment, and one which you would hope to pay off. To this extent, the graduate premium ought to be a factor in our valuation of degree subjects, but it is only a part of the whole. In the debate over university funding we are confronted by issues such as who or what should finance both students and higher education institutions, and whether there ought to be a flat rate of fees for courses and institutions of varying quality (however measured). These are complex and highly contested debates, and as the impact of the recession is felt by families and institutions alike, they will come increasingly under scrutiny. Nevertheless, if we are to attain some measure of clarity and consensus we must attempt to identify all of the fundamental benefits of higher education, and not just the tangible and financial.
“The value of non-vocational arts and humanities subjects cannot be quantified simply by the pay slip the student receives upon entering the ‘real world'”
The value of non-vocational arts and humanities subjects cannot be quantified simply by the pay slip the student receives upon entering the ‘real world’. The study of arts and humanities engender skills often acquired indirectly. These involve the functional ability to engage with alien cultures or cultural products, to research efficiently, analyse logically, and present arguments coherently. It involves discursive, intersubjective, and reflective modes of knowledge and communication which contribute to how our society ought to operate. Above all, though, we must acknowledge the intrinsic value of the subject matter. Aesthetic pleasure and cultural understanding are important resources for human achievement, the benefits of which are enjoyed not just by the individual student but by the wider community with which he or she engages.
“We must do away with the officious and misleading language of the graduate premium and articulate the more cerebral benefits of higher education”
We must recognise both the instrumental and fundamental values of higher education. If policy and commentary continue to focus on the former, I fear we would be neglecting the cultural qualities which only arts and humanities degrees can offer. This would be a regrettable extension of a contemporary tendency to promote and pursue ends and outcomes to the detriment of means and processes, resulting in an obsession with targets in policy and education. In order to avoid such a slide, we must do away with the officious and misleading language of the graduate premium and articulate the more cerebral benefits of higher education. While the pound in your pocket is important, it is the matter in your mind that provides a premium for all.