It is time we changed our approach to higher education.
It seems that whenever there is any discussion of university education, a vicious debate erupts over the value of degrees today, versus what they were in years past. Those who went to university in the decades before me seem to revel in the fact that their degree was much harder earned and meant more than mine, and they’re probably right.
But it’s not the students’ fault; everyone except the universities themselves seems to understand their true value and place in today’s society. Those studying now can only play what is in front of them, and they have very little influence over that, or the ever-increasing fees they are charged.
It is time to see university less as the pinnacle of education and more as an opportunity for young people to experience living away from home, enjoy themselves and mature. In fairness, it is (in most cases) in all but name, but no one seems to have told the universities. They still cling to ancient promises made at inception to always deliver the highest standards of academia, perhaps as a way to justify to themselves the insane fees they charge.
These standards were diluted by John Major’s reforms and have fallen further and further as fees rise and student numbers multiply, seemingly endlessly. This has been allowed to continue by each successive government, with the embodiment of this lack of governance coming in the form of our last Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, who sadly left students completely forgotten during the pandemic.
As much as I want to defend students as much as I can, it is simply false to think that degrees are as valuable as they once were. Last week I wrote passionately about the versatility of a humanities degree, and it is both wonderful and right that degrees enable young people to enter all fields, but university degrees were once the path trodden by the future academic or specialist.
Now, believe me, I’m not calling for a rollback of elitist university admissions. Everyone should have access to university, but unis need to stop pretending they are still at the same institutional (academic) level as they were decades ago.
Employers are well aware of the reality, with average graduate wages falling over the past decade. I look at a friend’s situation: he studied for four years at a top university, got a top grade in economics and got a job in finance. His interviewers were keen to point out how much of an asset that degree made him, but that was not reflected in what came next.
To become fully qualified, one must take a total of 16 economics exams. I was shocked to find that his degree (which was a minimum requirement for his job, by the way) excluded him from only one of these 16 exams. Four years at a top uni allowed him to sit out just one exam. Even those who had specialized in finance degrees were told they still had to sit five more exams.
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While, as the saying goes, the hard work starts when you enter the workplace, it seems insane to me that uni degrees are so poorly valued by employers that they have to ask new and potential employees for additional research to prove their suitability for the field. If degrees were worth what many universities claim they are, these additional qualifications required by businesses would be obsolete.
Look at apprenticeships, which were previously poorly paid, and you can see a framework that now values both young people and employers – a fine balance. Well-paid and competitive, these types of schemes allow young people to get a foot on the ladder and a chance at reasonable financial independence, while providing employers with open-minded people receptive to corporate values.
The true value of a degree, in my experience, is the life skills you pick up from home, but these are now also readily available to those who choose apprenticeships, who are no longer forced by low wages to live at home. They also have the advantage of being able to complete the program without £30,000 of debt.
Why do these institutions still proclaim to be the best path for young people? Universities are either naive enough to still believe that the degrees they offer have the same value as they did 50 years ago, or they are too happy to rake in the astronomical fees to bother being honest with themselves, or millions of students they enroll.
I’m not sure which is worse.