Big Debate: Do too many students go to university?

 

Yes (Giles Goodwin):

“It’s a good job that new humanities factory opened in Porthcawl” is my usual snarky response to someone informing me that they are off to university to study some degree of which I can find no importance. Every year droves of avocado eating teens pack up and leave to study the arts, philosophy and any number of subjects. They want to change the world, express themselves through the cult of ugliness (aka modern art), thrash around on stage or think really hard about something and nothing.

They talk about the experience, about the culture. They squander away money on alcohol, nights out, maybe drugs. Kitchens descend into savage conditions. Boyfriends and girlfriends come and go like a Southern train. “Don’t fret, it’s all about a good time”. Call me a bore but £15,000 a year is a lot of money to pay for a good time.

The simple fact is, too many students attend university each year. So many have gone in fact, that it has depleted the labour market substantially. A couple of years ago, this country was in the height of a crisis. Unemployment was high, yet, there were many unfilled jobs.  Why? There was nobody to fill them. After talking to some large companies who desperately needed staff, the Government decided to boost the apprenticeship scheme. Two million more places, and hey, it worked. Suddenly factories started shooting up all over. Britain now makes more cars in the North East of England alone than all of Italy, a little fact that feeds my patriotism. This is really important, however, since all those taken into work, now had a job, income, a stake in their community. It reduces crime rates, provides them with the means to settle down, and start a family.

I really wanted to fill this article with facts, to prove that college and apprenticeships are a far more viable option than university for a huge number of people. Unfortunately, it was like comparing apples and oranges, and none of the statistics were particularly useful to me. Except one. That a fifth of university graduates were earning less than the average wage of a further education graduate. A fifth of people leaving university will earn less than a typical person who went to college to learn catering, hair dressing or engineering. That isn’t a surprise. I’ve seen some of the work that passes for “art” in university, and I can see no reason why any person would hand over money for it. Unless you happen to be a very charismatic writer, how likely is it that you can publish any media that people would buy containing, say philosophy or cultural studies? However, I can think of a thousand things that we use every day that don’t need a degree, but a skill.

Our world is turned not by the people who parade around on catwalks or cover canvases with random streaks. It is turned by those with applicable skills. Bricks need to be laid, deliveries need to be driven, food needs to be prepared, cars need to be built, and aircraft need to be repaired. These are all jobs that we depend on at all times. And yet the “intellectual elite” still like to snigger into their sleeves at the college goers. I don’t. Power to them, those who wish to not squander away thousands of pounds for virtually nothing, and instead chase hard work and employment. I mean, how many films are about a struggling artist compared with a struggling air craft engineers?

I can well see why someone would want to study philosophy. I love it myself. But I also love my bank account, and so philosophy stays a hobby. Realistically, most of the best philosophers and artists were autodidacts. Before the Renaissance there were no art schools, yet Michelangelo managed to produce art bounds better than Picasso and his crowd. The great philosophers like Socrates could never attend an academy, because they didn’t exist. Anyone can full well account by day, and indulged in a painting at night. Stich hems by day, read Aristotle by night.

So, next time you log into UCAS looking for a degree to study, have a look at the apprenticeship section. You never know, perhaps assembling computers or constructing dams is for you.

 

 

No (William Cronk):

The system of higher education has changed a lot in recent years. More young people than ever before are deciding that university life is for them, and this has encouraged many to say that this is reducing the value of the experience – largely because of the idea that resources (like degrees) are only valuable if they are scarce. Don’t listen to these jaded malcontents because, at the risk of sounding like your A-level teacher, university is a place in which you can truly start to understand who you are and in what you are really interested.

Unlike the world of work, university offers you an enormous amount of freedom and you can explore so much more than your degree subject. A student has the opportunity to join the many clubs and societies on campus, and begin to develop a fascination with the Italian language at the Italian society, turn a guilty pleasure into an area of expertise with the Doctor Who society, or awaken their inner angel with the Sussex Chamber Choir. A place where wackiness is celebrated, where you learn what you are passionate about and why, and with thousands of people from every conceivable background and culture, university can broaden your ways of thinking and viewing others in a way that nowhere else can: in no other place could you find such a wide range of interests and knowledge so concentrated and accessible. A great example of this is the Sussex Polymath Society, where people from different academic fields all come together to shed light on that week’s topic, hoping to broaden the scope of discussion, and show that within everything lies the possibility for a thousand varying, yet connected, interpretations. If you are willing to look for it, there is no end to the new horizons university can offer you.

Some may disagree with this. Some may criticise the British university system for being too politically narrow, following and nurturing one viewpoint, and not being critical enough of certain philosophies. This argument has an enormous amount of merit, in that it is true. However, the way to deal with this is not to retreat with tails between legs, but to redouble effort, and strive not only to watch campus life go by, but to become involved in it. In this section, there is a guide to getting political at Sussex. I urge you to read it and, no matter your political leaning, to follow it; there is no better place than Sussex in which to flex your political muscles. A more politically active electorate is nothing to sniff at either, and this is something the universities are good at producing.

While your degree is a very nice rubber stamp on your CV (from it can be inferred your ability to meet deadlines and overcome new and challenging obstacles), it also comes with personal and societal benefits. For you, a pay rise of 15% on average compared with someone without a degree. For society, well-funded research institutions creating very helpful things like new medicines, 3-D printers that can create functioning kidneys, and quantum computers which I don’t understand at all but trust will be rather useful. Of course you yourselves might be some of the people that break ground on something equally fascinating and enriching. Maybe you’ll be the one to find out why ants communicate in the way they do, or write a new theory of international development that reduces world poverty. You might, of course, have reached these conclusions and breakthroughs without attending university, but I think the chances of that are slimmer.

Universities are not perfect. Their imperfections, however, are not etched in stone, and it is the student body which has the power to change it. Through discussion and protest, universities can be made to change their policies on things like contact hours, fees, and teaching quality. I’m here to tell you that you haven’t made a huge mistake coming here. To say that a degree is meaningless because it is not scarce ignores the depth of the experience of university, which should be experienced by anyone who wants to experience it: we shouldn’t try to hoard this experience so as to control its value, like a pack of bloated oil barons. This is a wonderful place, and the people you meet here, and the books you read, and the talks you attend, will stay with you for the rest of your life. But these opportunities don’t just come to you, you have to go out there and find them. University really is what you make it.

 

 

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