Clearly, not everyone needs to go to University. But in espousing that More means Better, I hold that higher education is actually a pretty varied thing. The degrees and courses that are offered in universities and other providers are very diverse; they do not sit neatly on simple spectra of academic to vocational, or hard to easy, or useful to useless. That 50% target, if actually about the population having some ‘higher’ education before they are 30, seems very unambitious for a knowledge economy.
But I’m relaxed about the notion that not everyone needs to go to University. What is a pain is when the argument tips into having to stress the negatives of going to university in order to prove that not going to university is OK. Which brings us the to the Times Magazine on Saturday and Is University Really Worth it? (paywall)
In order to balance the picture of going to university, we are treated to excellent stories of people going into glamorous jobs (at least the kind of jobs that are glamorous in weekend magazines). Through different routes, people have escaped from university to become brand managers, photographers, costume designers (and trainee accountants). We are treated to a standard line-up of celebrity non-university attenders:
Yes, of course, the list includes Sir Richard Branson.
In each of the case studies, the money of going to university is cited. For those who remain at university, the Times says:
Yet, for some, the investment does not pay off. A third of graduates took jobs as cleaners, office juniors and road sweepers six months after leaving university, according to recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). More than 60,000 students were in “nonprofessional” roles, working in areas such as administration and secretarial, service and caring industries and customer service. The data also showed that almost 16,730 graduates were out of work six months after leaving university – employment rates not helped by young people graduating into a labour market still hit by the recession.
Now, we know how the first destination data is problematic – but look how the numbers shift before your eyes – you’ll not find any data that a third of graduates were cleaners, office juniors and road sweepers.
Then the article adds some university experts: Ted Tapper and David Palfreyman and then Alan Smithers. They play into the it was better in the past angle, with Smithers reinforcing the full more means worse vibe with the notion that clearly many of the students shouldn’t be there – entry requirements are not as ‘stiff’ as they used to be.
This is all fine but it completely fails to put the other side of the case in the article. Going to university might be expensive (although the piece doesn’t really explain that you don’t pay up front or measure what ‘expensive’ means) and glamorous people haven’t gone (although glamorous people have -let’s substitute Lily Cole for Carey Mulligan). Of course people can become successful without going to university – but what about all the things they can’t do if they don’t go? In case you don’t want to be a brand manager, but instead be a nurse, doctor, lawyer, engineer, architect, or what if you want to study something intensely with people who are discovering new things about art or history or physics?
We should balance the argument with all the wonderful things about university – not to say that people must go to university – but to say that there’s a choice. And that choice does not have to be made at 17 or 18. It doesn’t have to mean full-time residential courses. But, that an ambition that a majority of people should have some education of a level higher than they could have obtained at School, is no bad thing at all.