What Are Universities Actually For?

Wednesday 21st February

Theresa May has announced a year-long review (nicely into the long grass) of University Funding, because she says that the present system, which she and her Cabinet Colleagues helped to create (and certainly exacerbated by the tripling of fees) is not working.  Well, we all know that.  But I suspect that her announcement has far more to do with a feeble attempt to divert attention away from Brexit, and her fear of the popularity of Labour’s Policy of scrapping fees entirely, than any real concern.

The question of funding certainly needs to be addressed. How could we have allowed such a crazy system to have emerged.  In England, the Student Loan Company (an arms-length branch of Government) borrows money from the Bank of England and lends it to students at 6% a year; they don’t begin to repay this until they achieve a certain salary (around 30k).  But the debt keeps on growing.  On average students will be leaving Uni with a £57,000 debt – which will either be repaid at about 9p in the pound or written off after 30 years.  At present about 45% of this money is lost and the taxpayer picks up the tab.  Mrs. May says that almost everyone agrees that those who benefit from a University Education should have to pay for it.  Oh yes, just like she, and the vast majority of M.P.s, have paid for theirs.

But all of that is almost a side issue.  The real question should be “What are Universities Really For?”

In my day, the late Sixties, a University Education was far more about broadening one’s horizon, expanding one’s life experience, following an intellectual pursuit.  We assumed that on the whole this might give us a better career, although hovering in the background was the advice of my Careers Officer at the sole 15 minute interview I had with her. “Well, if you go to University – you can always become a teacher.”  And actually. many of my classmates did just that.  Not that being a teacher is anything poor or second-rate, but I am not sure that simply passing exams and going to Uni, or Teacher training college is necessarily the best way of choosing good teachers.  In my school all the teachers were graduates, and half of them had the communication skills of a gnat.

Now unfortunately, Universities seem to exist mostly to inflate the salaries of the Senior staff and administrators.  Employers are now, because of the hugely increased numbers of graduates, asking for degrees for many quite low-skilled jobs.  Graduates are being forced to work as waitresses or shop assistants because of the high level of degrees among candidates for the jobs they really would like to be doing.  In my mind, far too many people are going to University, and consequently the value of a degree has fallen.  There are too many Universities and Colleges which simply churn out degrees of little value in the real world.

I do accept that many Universities do valuable research work, but can we afford under any system to send so many kids to University?

There is also quite a stigma, in certain circles, attached to those who did not go to University.   I have received this several times.  I was destined for Uni, but flunked it and had a different further education.  I had to teach myself about computers, and Accounts (never been on a course in my life).  And I have met quite a few graduates with shiny degrees who know nothing about how business really works, or the slightest understanding of Accounts.  But that is another story.

I just wonder why we spend, one way or another, ten times as much on sending kids to University, as we do on Apprenticeships or vocational training.  Maybe it comes down to the simple fact that most M.P.s are University educated (mostly at no cost to themselves) and they assume that this is essential for the continued success of the country; a sort of elitism that still pervades our Establishment.  Intelligence has little to do with passing exams, and we are maybe placing far too much importance on a University education.