Universities must be more than just degree factories

A diversion from the main subject of this blog, but I do think this is an important topic – and key to why I am able to do what I do here, and for a living.

On the whole, I’ve had an extremely good education. First, kindergarten and prep school – my grandfather owned a prep school in Winchester (the now-closed Nethercliffe).

After that, I attended Lord Wandsworth College, as a ‘Foundationer’, a scheme the College ran to provide assistance with fees for those from families without two parents, and in financial hardship.

That excellent education – and it was of a quality that I think should be available to everyone, not just the few who can gain assistance with fees, or have a wealthy family – enabled me to gain a place to study Computing Science at Imperial College.

As a student starting in 1986, I received a full maintenance grant. There were no tuition fees, and no student loans; those who, like me, started a their course in ’86 were among the last to graduate before loans were introduced for the 1990/91 academic year.

(A brief aside: looking at the fees for Imperial, including student halls, I reckon that to do the course I did, you’d be spending almost £60,000 all in. My late twin brother went to Cambridge; between the two of us, we’d have had to take on over £100,000 in debt. I honestly think that would have ruled university out for both of us, as I believe fees will for many).

Messing around

I don’t think it’s terribly boastful to say that actually, I’m quite clever. I’m not a genius, but I could almost certainly have done better at Imperial than a third class degree, if I’d applied myself.

I didn’t. I spent a lot of time doing what it’s fashionable – especially amongst those who haven’t gone to university – to call ‘messing around.’ There’s a sneering tone adopted by some commentators on the student protests which suggests that these people aren’t really studying, or they’re not doing ‘proper’ courses. And “why should we pay for people to doss about for three years?”

Frankly, if it wasn’t for all the ‘messing around,’ I wouldn’t be doing the jobs I’m doing now. At best, I’d probably be cranking out technical documentation for a computer company. I certainly wouldn’t be writing the sort of things that I do, and helping to explain things to the many people who have, over the years, told me that they appreciate the information I’ve been able to share with them, in a wide range of print titles, or online.

What I did at Uni

By the end of my first week at Imperial, I was learning how to work the computer typesetter for the college newspaper, Felix. I learned how to do page layouts the old fashioned way, with scalpel and gum. On the college radio station, I learned how to present, and how to edit programmes using a chinagraph pencil, razor blade, and splicing block.

I did all this in some of my free time and also, yes, in some of the time when I should probably have been attending lectures.

But honestly, I don’t think it matters.

Sure, I got a third, when I could have done better. I also learned the rudiments of press and radio production, and discovered that I loved writing.

I interviewed Shirley Williams and someone from the South African Embassy. I got to see inside some parts of the BBC, and met people who had followed the path from student media to professional media. And most important of all, I realised that what I really wanted to do was not what I’d thought I wanted to do at sixteen, when our system of A levels forced me to make a choice that could have defined my life.

I didn’t want to just work with computers. I wanted to be a journalist. And, eventually I succeeded, with my first job on the now-defunct Computer Buyer magazine.

Why this is important

Much of this happened, I’m convinced, because I didn’t have a bank manager looking over my shoulder. I didn’t – as so many students do now – have to spend evenings and weekends working, to find money to live on, or to worry about paying back fees.

I was able to take time at university to explore other things, like the student media. Other people spent their time in different ways – in the dramatic society, or other groups and social organisations. For some of them, it was just a pastime, but for many others it has been a way to discover real skills, that lead to or enhance a career.

When you have to spend all your free time earning money, that’s not possible. And I firmly believe that denies opportunities and chances to a lot of people, and stops them fulfilling their potential.

I think that’s a very important point, all too often lost. The debate about how education is funded is vitally important (and one, really, that’s been being dodged by governments of all colours, for years). Freelance writing – what I do now – isn’t necessarily a road to immense riches, but in good years, I’m pretty certain I’m contributing more tax now than I would be if I were in another profession.

Some people might write this off as sentimental ramblings of a lefty with a privileged upbringing, and say “oh yes, we couldn’t do without the alumni of the Cambridge Footlights, could we?” but that is cherry picking, I think. Many people – including myself – benefit from university in ways far beyond their degree course. Even just from my time at Imperial, and the studen media there, I can think of quite a few people to whom that applies.

When you have an educational system that forces people into narrow choices when they’re very young, as ours does, surely universities ought to be a place where people can broaden their horizons, rather than continuing down a narrow path set when they were an adolescent?

And if that means that someone who sets out to do one thing doesn’t get a great degree, but discovers a real aptitude for something else, is that really such a bad thing?

If we continue to saddle students with debts and bills, then I fear that my generation will turn out to be one of the last very lucky ones, to be educated freely, unburdened by constant worries about debt.

Our universities will have been turned from places of education into factories for degrees, awarded to people who were forced to make choices about their life before they really knew all the possibilities open to them, and who will saddle themselves with debt in the process. And that really is worth protesting about.

2 Replies to “Universities must be more than just degree factories”

  1. You’re 4 years younger than me then, and my last year was the last when there was a minimum maintenance grant – they were means tested and parents above a certain earnings threshold were expected to make up the difference on a sliding scale.

    I too don’t come from what most would call a wealthy family – just a fairly average working class family with both parents going out to work. Of course, back then I was (thankfully) oblivious to family finances, but I assume it must have been a tough time for my parents since I had two older brothers who went to university. I, and my parents, were exceedingly lucky that I got generous sponsorship (as part of an apprenticeship) by a large local employer – so I was relatively well off bull still finished Uni with a hefty overdraft that took years to clear.

    I agree, it’s not boastful to admit to being clever, but it can be difficult to do so without sounding arrogant. For much the same reason, I don’t generally tell people I don’t know that I went to Oxford as that tends to immediately put a lot of people off and they seem reluctant to continue in conversation with someone who they obviously perceive as an “egg head”. A much quicker conversation stopper is mentioning Mensa, but I digress …

    I agree absolutely with your comments on fees. These days I can imagine the costs for a family of three children running close to the value of the family home. Makes paying off the mortgage in 25 years seem like a walk in the park ! I’m fairly certain that all three of us wouldn’t have gone to uni under the current cost setup.

    In my opinion the whole “justification” for these fees is bogus. If graduates really do earn more than non-graduates, then the simple matter is that they’ll pay more income tax, not to mention the indirect taxes (such as VAT on the extra spending the higher income supports.) The argument that the state shouldn’t subsidise them to earn more in the future doesn’t wash once you realise that it’s an investment – subsidise a graduate & get more tax take in the future. That’s only direct taxes of course.

    One brother works abroad but is domiciled in the UK for tax purposes. So not only is he paying handsomely in income tax, he’s also directly benefitting the balance of payments by bringing money into the country.

    The other brother is having an old cottage renovated. Had he graduated with these large debts, then he’d almost certainly be a rung down on the property ladder, and the work for local businesses (again benefitting the economy) probably wouldn’t have happened – and that’s a chunk of VAT the Chancellor would also be missing out on.

    As for me, I’d probably never have paid a penny off my loan yet – having had a number of jobs which have been “experience rich, cash poor ! And as a result I certainly wouldn’t be in a position to own my flat.

    And I think back to Tony in all those press conferences talking endlessly about “Education, Education, Education” being the bedrock of the country’s economy – while all the time, amongst his other failings, Gordon next door in No 11 was busy trying to make education seem as unattractive as possible !

    Lastly, on the subject (sort of). Something else I never hear much about is the almost 100% tax on self improvement – I think it probably will be back over 100% soon. If I were lucky enough to work for an employer that pays for training, he’d be able to reclaim all the VAT and it wouldn’t attract National Insurance (Employers or Employees) or Income Tax. Since I don’t work for such a generous employer I;d have to pay for training myself. That means for every £1 cost of the course, the taxman takes another pound in VAT, NI, and Income Tax and so it takes £2 of what my employer earns to pay for £1 of training.

    Frankly, I think that’s a scandal, and when you contrast our taxation here with other EU countries, it’s no wonder so much is going abroad. For commercial pilot training, even if done with a UK training body, the bulk of it goes abroad (the US and Spain are popular destinations). At least a commercial pilot, if they make it to Captain, can look forward to a decent wage in the future to pay off their £60k to £100k training bill !

    In the more mundane IT world, it’s certainly a factor making self improvement harder than it needs to be, and hence helping to suppress Uk skill levels.

  2. I’m 28 and, having paid off my Oxbridge student loan, now consider myself lucky compared to today’s high school kids. This despite the furore about the introduction of £3k/year fees that hit me.

    I’ll also make the obligatory statement that my parents were very working class (no bank of mum and dad whatsoever), and I too consider myself clever 😉

    Introductions over.

    Education is probably the greatest gift a child can receive. Nothings beats it in terms of setting people up for a healthy/fulfilling/happy life. University was the place that really made me as a person, due to mixing with amazing people that share a passion for their subject. That’s infectious positivity that stays with you.

    The new government policy will reserve this treat for the rich.

    Whilst you could jump to the conclusion that that is simply the Tory agenda, I disagree; there’s no ideological distinction that actually translates into non-negotiable policy differences between any of the three main parties, no matter what the LibDems say. (This topic is a brilliant case in point). Mervyn King’s private notes on Cameron/Osbourne suggest their main motive in all matters is electability (Source: Wikileaks). The Tories think that the demographic they will hurt most by the new policy (under 18s) are unlikely to be able to react in terms of mass voting power. So if you’re deciding what to cut on the grounds of offending the least voters, the policy makes sense. At least, as a short-term move.

    If you disagree that the Tories will view this policy as hurting a minority of voters (perhaps you are are thinking that parents will be equally offended?), think again. Most (repeat “most”) UK parents don’t a strong mental concept of financial obligation for the majority of their child’s education, unlike US parents.
    – In the US, the culture is for the high-price of degrees to be parentally front-loaded, i.e. parents _save_ in advance for the majority of their college education resulting in an average student debt of just $15k.
    – In the UK, the culture is for the degree to be individually back-loaded, i.e. the student pays the majority of the cost after graduating in the form of debt repayments that will average £25k (Source: BBC).
    Personally (and now we’re very much into realms of personal viewpoints), I’ve found Baby Boomers to be surprisingly unaware of how lucky they have been to be part of a rising tide, particularly on property, but also in terms of employment, pensions, and state benefits. On paper, that generation has done very well. They don’t/didn’t realise that the government would expect them to be storing up that _relative_ excess of wealth to pay for their children’s education.

    In summary, to get to anything like a sustainable steadystate with the new policy, at a minimum we need to adopt a US-like approach of parents saving long in advance for their children’s education. But the culture gap is just too big, to the point that most people can’t even get their head round the idea of paying so much out of their own pocket. In future, a large number of would-be students (in conjunction with their parents expectations and means) will simply give up their hopes of a democratising education.

    Anyway, FreeviewHD’s pretty nifty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.