The University of Life

The dialogue with Lindsey about universities has continued for some years, and is still not fully resolved: which course, where, how to finance it, best career options and how to score competitive advantage to get there.  Lots to think about and one of those key life decisions that ultimately makes a vast difference to your direction of travel.

Is it worth the cost and trouble to get a university place?  Some people don’t think so.  Time was some people thought it better to start on the bottom rung and work your way up rather than taking time out to do a degree.  Some parents push kids to do a degree who simply lack the intellectual capacity or aptitude for that style of learning.  I’ve taught a few at some universities who struggled to keep up and would arguably have been better off learning while working at a job more suited to their capabilities, though with the right motivation and hard work most people of a reasonable level of intelligence should be able to learn and grow within higher education – if they select the right course.

There are two main issues with starting life without a degree these days: many professions are closed to entry unless you do have a degree, particularly in professions and those careers for which the degree is vocational or integral to advancement (eg. law, medicine, and indeed scientific disciplines like the route Lindsey is aiming to go), especially since apprenticeships are not a feasible alternative; and in many cases there will be a glass ceiling for progression through the ranks without the qualifications.  There is no doubt that graduates will go on to earn higher salaries, and with the right universities and the right degrees find themselves in an exclusive alumni club networking at senior levels in society – certainly true of Oxbridge, Harvard and Yale, for example.

But there is a more immediate benefit to university education: mind expansion and having a bloody good time in the process.  Part of university is moving away from parental home – flying the nest, meeting new people, learning to live by yourself (albeit via the initial halfway house of Halls of Residence), and becoming an well-rounded responsible citizen.  In the course of this metamorphosis you may discover enthusiasms you never knew you had, part of the benefit of the sheer range of opportunities opened to you at university, and develop the brain as a thinking muscle.

Not that Lindsey will need any encouragement to do so, but there is also the need to develop the discipline of working, since at university you are not spoon-fed and are expected to do the reading and assignments without being prompted or asking for extensions.

This article on the experience of well-known graduates tells an interesting story.  In my case, as with Tom Fleming within the Guardian article, I was the first in my family to go into higher education.  My dad did his apprenticeship in architecture with Courtalds, broken by national service after the war with day release to work at college.  These days he would need to do a 5-year degree and get incredibly high grades even to be considered for entry into a massively competitive profession like architecture.

In my parents’ day you went to university if you were very wealthy or you were sufficiently gifted to get a scholarship, as with Harold Wilson and others.  Then there were student grants to pay what now seems relatively modest tuition fees, plus living costs.  And as the need for controlling government expenditure became more evident to those in power, the value of grants dropped and the means testing associated with them became stricter, student loans for food and accommodation were introduced, then loans for tuition fees, and eventually the jump from £3,500 to “a maximum” of £9,000 pa, to compensate for the drop in subsidy from the Treasury.  A very naive move from the government, expecting that universities would charge less than the maximum for tuition!

The loans and the mechanism for repayment gave rise to a fierce debate about how far we should invest in our pool of young talent, and how fair it was to saddle them with huge debts at the start of their career.  Typically, I hear, any student may end up with debts of at least £54,000 before they start work, and therefore will continue to repay them as they take on mortgages and starting families. Middle class parents have traditionally stepped into the breach to subsidise education, but there are limits on our capability to fund, and we must accept there are many families who simply cannot afford to contribute, particularly in lean times.  The worst of all worlds is for the universities once again to become the preserve of the wealthy, rather than being a true meritocracy.

Universities have always made a good living charging overseas students full economic cost for their degrees, and there is no doubt these are the more profitable bets rather than domestic students – particularly in the UK, where endowments to and commercial sponsorship of universities falls well below the levels of American universities, and where scholarships and bursaries for students from poorer backgrounds are harder to come by.

Worse still, the overseas students would study by day and work on one or maybe two jobs just to make ends meet, pay for their grotty house shares and feed themselves.  Some students will undoubtedly have to work, but I’d really hope study can be done without the need for working 24 x 7.

My MBA (see here) at what was then Henley Management College, which I funded myself at far below the current cost, was a brilliant experience but clearly Henley could not survive as a small independent research-based teaching institution, and eventually merged with the University of Reading, to be renamed Henley Business School.  To compete and grow and provide the best possible education and research capability, universities need vastly higher funding than the state can provide.  Making ends meet is proving increasingly tough for them, particularly if they aspire to be at the cutting edge of research in given disciplines.

Visiting York University with Lindsey was fascinating, not least to see the lab where Dr Paul Genever and colleagues are growing stem cells on scaffolds into hip replacements, such that in future you could make your own new joints without any fear of rejection by the body.  Research like that funds the continuity of learning, development and trains the people who will develop the next generation of research.  This is the fuel for the future of advanced societies.

So what is the right answer?  If the state can’t or won’t fund it, industry won’t give the weight of sponsorship required, and students can’t afford more, where can the money come from to deliver a first-class education and the best research faculties?

If it were that easy, it would have been done long since. But market forces still govern places, and for the right courses at the right universities demand is still overwhelming (to the tune of hundreds of applicants for every place in some courses) – if we could find the right funding mechanism to match places and students better, we could have a wealth of new doctors, accountants, lawyers, scientists, far more than we develop now.  Ultimately, people who aren’t quite good enough for the top schools may accept second or third best options and may fail to deliver the potential they undoubtedly possess.

PS. The first results of the new policy are in: a 8.9% reduction in students applying (10% in England), with a particular drop in applications from poorer households.




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