What is the purpose of university? It might seem like an ignorant question, with an obvious answer, but in this generation of students many don’t seem to know why they came to university. Is university for those who are passionate about a certain subject? Is it a rite of passage all about the experience? Or is it simply a hidden employment tax? With fees (for English students, at least) at their highest levels ever of £9,000 per year, not including any living expenses, many are beginning to ask if university is worth years and years of student debt, and what it’s actually for.
It is undeniable that there are, of course, many students who go to university because they are passionate about their subjects. I love my degree, and find lectures fascinating, but there are also many who seem to have little or no interest in their modules, but are at university purely for employment purposes. Although there are less vocational university courses nowadays, a university degree is seen as essential for most of the jobs that society considers “high status”, and those that are well paid.
Now of course, there are many issues around that, with society systematically devaluing essential jobs such as teachers and carers, and university is part of the problem; especially in middle-class circles, both employers and acquaintances can be incredibly snobby about those without a university degree. However, what does a university degree actually give us that work experience or apprenticeships don’t? This is where I would argue that a university degree could be seen as an employment tax, a payment encouraged by society to allow certain people to reach higher status jobs.
Of course university degrees do give graduates skills, and, usually a semi-detailed knowledge of their specialist subject. Yet are those skills applicable to real-life jobs? I know that in CVs and careers offices throughout the country we say that humanities subjects have given us the ability to examine evidence, construct arguments, write well – and that the sciences help to analyse and experiment. However, even in Russell group universities, it is possible to get good grades without a full immersion in your subject, and even without some of the skills it posits to give you.
Education-wise, university may not always be the best learning experience, with contact hours rapidly declining for many students. Whether this is due to universities focusing funds on areas away from the actual learning, or students who are uninterested in academia is a question for another day. Either way, it is easy for students to miss lectures and tutorials, only showing up for those directly related to exams and essays, and therefore not even reaching a comprehensive understanding of their own subjects. Universities are following the school system in channelling priorities towards assessment, rather than learning.
Now I love my university experience, am interested in my degree and really do think it will help me later on in life. But many people do not feel this way, and it is important to continue to question why we simply accept university as a rite of passage and set it as the only way to reach high status employment rather than leaving it for those fascinated by their academic area, and focusing on more vocational trainings such as internships.
University student numbers have been fluctuating over the last few decades peaking in 2011 with nearly 2.5 million – then rapidly dropping to 2.35 million following the rise in tuition fees – and have gradually been climbing up again ever since. With millions of our youth undertaking higher education, degrees are no longer a rarity, even if they are a commodity in the world of employment. I am all for focusing on education not only for its use, but also for the pure joy of learning, however it is important to fully question whether the university experience, and a degree, are really worth investing in.
Image: Alan Levine via Flickr