What’s the point of going to university?

Sunday 3 November, 16:0017:15, Frobisher 4-6Battle for Education


Today, almost 20 years after Tony Blair’s famous pledge to send over 50 per cent of young people to university, the legacy of increased university access is highly contested. The announcement of a new university degree called ‘Technical Studies for Rappers and MCs’, which would focus on production and editing skills as well as the history of the artform and song writing, was widely dismissed as a ‘rap degree’ and so led to familiar comments about the rise of so-called ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’. In the minds of some, therefore, the increase in university courses and places has resulted in the proliferation of dodgy degrees.

Others see in these attacks on predominantly vocational courses a barely concealed snobbery and elitism, and argue that the demands of the modern world require new kinds of degree. To that end, they argue, university has an important role to play in preparing people of all backgrounds for the world of work. Likewise, the 2019 Augar review of all tertiary education – in addition to headline-grabbing recommendations about reducing university fees – concluded that urgent action was needed to correct a ‘nation of two halves’ where university education was vastly over-represented in funding compared to non-university education and training.

Nonetheless, perhaps it is worth asking some basic questions. To begin with, there is the familiar question of about the role of university: is it a place to study ‘for its own sake’ or somewhere to help you get on in life? There is also the question of how many people should go to university – and the question of what those who do not go should do instead. There is a feeling that young people who want to get a decent job are being given a poor choice. On the one hand, they could go to university – which might not be the best place to learn in-demand skills like design, coding or manufacturing – and leave with a mountain of debt. On the other hand, they could avoid university and feel locked out of many employers’ recruitment processes. Increasingly, young people are asking: what’s the best option for me?

One change that many have noted is the decline of traditional further education (FE). For such commentators, FE used to provide a route for young adults to get specialised instruction in practical skills. The incorporation of such vocational courses into sixth-form colleges on the one hand and university degrees on the other has left FE with little purpose. Moreover, while some argue that nothing matches the prestige of a university degree, others suggest that society should give the same recognition to the many non-university courses and professional qualifications that can be taken while working. But perhaps even the ‘prestige’ of the degree has been undermined – not just by dodgy degree courses but the four-fold rise in the proportion of first class degrees since 1994 and the steady rise in unconditional offers.

What, therefore, is best for young people? Has the obsession with universities gone too far, and should we seek to encourage people to pursue alternative paths? Is society letting down young people who would rather just get on? Can universities do a good job at preparing people for jobs, or should we seek greater use of on-the-job training? Even if we do encourage non-degree routes for people, can we ever overcome the cachet – some would say snobbery – associated with degrees? Does everyone deserve the opportunity to spend three years at university – or is it an evasion of the ‘real world’?