It is time we changed our approach towards higher education.
It seems every time there’s any discussion on university education, a vicious debate erupts around the value of degrees nowadays, versus what they were in previous years. Those who went to university in the decades preceding me seem to take great glee in the fact that their degree was much harder earned and meant more than mine, and they are probably right.
But that’s not the fault of the students; everybody but universities themselves seem to understand their true value and place in today’s society. Those studying now can only play what’s in front of them, and they have very little influence over that, or the ever-rising fees they are being charged.
It is time to look at university less as the peak of education and more as an opportunity for young people to experience living away from home, to enjoy themselves and to mature. In fairness, (in most cases) it is that in all but name, but nobody seems to have told the universities. They still cling on to age-old promises made at their inception to always provide the highest standards of academia, perhaps as a way of justifying to themselves the insane fees they demand.
Those standards were watered down by John Major’s reforms and have slipped further and further as the fees increase and the number of students multiplies, seemingly infinitely. This has been allowed to continue by every subsequent government, with the embodiment of this lackadaisical governance coming in the form of our most recent universities minister, Michelle Donelan, who woefully allowed students to be utterly forgotten during the pandemic.
As much as I want to defend students as far as I can, it is simply untrue to believe degrees are as valuable as they once were. Last week, I wrote passionately about the versatility of a humanities degree, and it is both fantastic and right that degrees enable young people to enter any field, but university degrees were once the path trodden by the future academic or specialist.
Now, believe me, I am not calling for a return of elitist university admission. Everyone should have access to university, but unis need to stop pretending that they are still the same level of institution (academically) as they were decades ago.
Employers are well aware of the reality, with average graduate salaries tumbling over the past decade. I look to a friend’s situation: he studied for four years at a top university, earned a top grade in economics and landed himself 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.
In order to become fully qualified, one must sit a total of 16 finance exams. I was staggered to find out that his degree (which, by the way, was a minimum requirement for his job) excluded him from only one of those 16 exams. Four years in a top uni allowed him to sit out on just one exam. Even those who had specialised in finance degrees were told they still had to sit five more exams.
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Whilst, as the expression goes, the hard work starts when you step into the workplace, it seems insane to me that uni degrees are valued so poorly by employers that they have to ask new and prospective employees for further examinations to prove their suitability to the field. If degrees were worth what many universities claim them to be, these extra qualifications required by businesses would be obsolete.
Look at apprenticeships, which used to be poorly paid, and you can see a framework that now values both young people and employers – a nice balance. Well-paid and competitive, these kinds of schemes allow young people to get a foot on the ladder and a chance at reasonable financial independence, whilst giving employers people with open minds, receptive to their company values.
The true value of a degree, in my experience, is the life skills you pick up away from home, but these are now also readily available to those who choose an apprenticeship, who are no longer forced by low wages into living at home. They also have the benefit of being able to finish their programme without £30,000 of debt.
Why do these institutions still preach being the best path for young people? Universities are either naive enough to still believe that the degrees they offer are of the same value as they were 50 years ago, or are too happy raking in the astronomical fees to care about being honest with themselves, or the millions of students they enrol.
I’m not sure which is worse.
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