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Is University really worth it?

Should the ‘crackdown’ on degrees filter out 'unworthy' courses and universities and ensure that young people are not being mis-sold degrees at £9250 a year when another route would serve them best?

Yes – Zak Watt

If you asked me where increased earning potential would figure in a ranking of my reasons for going to University, I would have to say it was fairly low, somewhere near the potential for sports stash and the ability to consume neon green VKs without being ostracised from society. While I am fully aware that for many University does, and has to, function as a means to financial freedom, the notion that this must to be the case for everyone is absurd. 

I’m not making the case that University has value in creating opportunities for a broader range of jobs even if they are not more well paid, or that University can develop ‘soft skills’ that can be helpful in the future, though these are both valid points. Rather I argue we should broaden what counts as valid reasons for wanting to go to University. To restrict this choice to a mere financial calculation is worryingly similar to restricting a ‘good life’ to maximisation of pleasure, and unfortunately the critique of utilitarianism is relevant to this reductive view of university; making decisions just isn’t that simple, there is no single algorithm.

An IFS report that found some students who attended university to be ‘worse off’ (financially) than their non-University counterparts, picks out English and Philosophy as being two of these courses. As someone who (for my sins) studies a course, a third of which is philosophy, I must say that while I’m pontificating on the finer details of George Berkeley’s metaphysics it has never once crossed my mind that this will boost my future income. 

For some students of English and Philosophy (among other courses) can’t we accept that their reason for attending University is a genuine interest in their subject, an intellectual itch that cannot be scratched in the world of work? Or perhaps more realistically, that University is one of the only times in life where one will be in such proximity to people of similar ages and interests? Why are these reasons any less rational or valid than financial ones?

Ask any adult who attended University what they most valued about their experience, I doubt many will even mention subsequent job opportunities. Similarly, the fact that the only a third of the Oxford trifecta of success (First, Spouse or Blue) includes anything even related to this tells us something of the variety of reasons people can reasonably have for going to University. 

This perspective doesn’t let Universities off the hook, needing only to be an incubator for young similarly minded people. But rather we shouldn’t only be comparing the financial difference between University and work, the relevant comparisons should also be the quality of intellectual exploration, the opportunities for meeting people and the calibre of memes that are circulated at University compared to in the real world. 

The idea that University is even largely about future earnings is implicit in areas of policy, journalism and most importantly when your mum recommends that you should study Maths instead of Philosophy because she’s heard it’s ‘really employable’. University is a time of exploration which perhaps shapes who you are as a person more than any other 3-year period in your life. Sure, people can go to University in sight of that sweet grad scheme pay check but to say that must be the reason is narrow-minded and not true to most people’s experience. So, before you accept the arguments about the unnecessary cost of Uni (if you don’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer), think about the other, arguably more important, reasons.

No – Colleen Cumbers

A recent study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that many university courses leave graduates no better off – or even worse off – than non-graduates. The now ex-minister for Universities, Sam Gyimah, rightly called for a ‘crackdown’ on universities that are not delivering value for money.  

The report highlights that certain universities and courses do not provide value. The majority of students envisage their degree providing a significant financial boost by the age of 29, but courses such as Creative Arts, Psychology and Social Care often do not deliver this. Similarly, certain universities as a whole provide no financial value. The Russell Group typically bucks this trend and offers good value for money, with one exception: The University of Glasgow.

Certain careers, such as a doctor or a lawyer, require you to go to university. Your degree is therefore valuable and opens up opportunities. However, for many young people, university has simply become a rite of passage. With degrees such as photography, baking technology and fashion pattern cutting (yes, that is a real degree) now appearing on some course lists, certain universities could easily be confused for a community centres.

There is the argument that university is about more than just the financial gain your degree provides. The diverse opportunities for personal growth are incredibly valuable. However, with most students taking out government loans to pay for their degree, the taxpayer is often footing the bill for this experience. Students who take degrees in non-academic subjects at universities outside the Russell Group often end up working in non-graduate roles and never pay back their loan in its entirety. This is detrimental for the individual, the government and taxpayers. 

Young people pursuing practical or vocational careers should be directed towards diplomas and apprenticeships which provide more relevant training and experience. The government’s proposed crackdown warns that it could strip institutions of their university status: this could be beneficial, enabling a clearer divide between academic institutions and vocational institutions. 

University should not be forced onto young people as something they have to go through, nor should it be seen as a rite of passage. Apprenticeships, diplomas and vocational training can provide as much life experience and, crucially, more real-world experience, than a traditional degree can. 

For the majority of jobs and careers out there, this is vital. People leaving university and being unable to find a job is a huge problem. If you have specific experience in your chosen field and the direct skills needed (as provided by a diploma or vocational training), then you are more likely to be able to get a job. Similarly, apprenticeships are a fantastic way of providing a certain amount of security while training. You get paid rather than paying and, if you do well, you may well have a job waiting for you at the end. This cannot be said of universities.  

A large problem with the education system in this country is that it often does not meet the skills need of our modern world. Traditional jobs such as dentist or engineer have an established route, however in the age of technology with the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the horizon, more and more new kinds of jobs are being created for which there is currently insufficient training. 

These jobs are more practical than academic and so a university often does not cater well to them as while degrees may show academic ability, specific training will still be required. On-the-job training with specific and modern qualifications must be prioritised in these areas and government funding should be directed to this form of education, otherwise the UK risks falling behind other technologically advanced countries. The government no longer having to foot the bill for financially unrewarding degrees would certainly be one way of re-directing funding. 

University should be an academic institution. The ‘crackdown’ on degrees should filter out unworthy courses and universities and ensure that young people are not being mis-sold degrees at £9250 a year when another route would serve them best. A one-size fits all approach simply does not work. 


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