This post comes with a couple of health warnings for those readers with a more delicate constitution. Firstly, it is entirely a one sided argument, perhaps even polemic. Its inspiration comes from me listening to a program on Radio 4 called “what’s the point of university?”, perhaps the modern middle class British equivalent of “writing a strongly worded letter to someone in authority”. Also, if you’re a “right thinking person” (in the political sense), then perhaps it may be a tad distasteful to you. That’s unintentional, I assure you, because I think that this is an issue that people of all persuasions can unite on. It arises purely out of my inner hard core of “librulness”. I am from Middlesbbrough after all. With that out of the way let’s move on.
Back in the 12th century (correct my history if necessary!) universities started in the UK. They were originally set up as kind of training schools for the Church, churning out ministers and monks and bishops and whatever else they need in the Church. “That would be an ecumenical matter” which I’m not qualified to comment on. Eventually universities in Britain moved on to researching the unknkown, pushing back the boundaries of human knowledge, and even giving women degrees. People eventually went to university to study things like Philosophy, and Classical Civilisation, and Biochemistry, and the History of Art, and they went because, depending on your viewpoint, a) they were rich southern jessies who had nowt’ better to do wi’ their time, or b) because they were bloody well interested in those things like What the Romans Had for Breakfast, and the Germ Theory of Disease. This post is not intended to be about equality, or the gap between rich and poor, or access to higher education. These are all worthy issues, and I have strong feelings about them, but I think they’re separate issues and will address them…. some other time. Let’s accept thesis b) for now, then. People, at one time in the mystical past (probably around upto about 10 years ago), by and large went to university to learn more about something that interested them. Why would you do that? I don’t know really, I think perhaps, it stems from the fact that interesting things are, well, to put it simply, interesting. It is stimulating to learn about them, and you feel enriched and excited and that the world is just a slightly better place than you thought it was before. Ever since we invented spoken language, and some guy said to some other guy “hey, this is kind of cool”, human beings have started learning and inventing. And, unless you’re some kind of person who believes that humans have some kind of intrinsic value and we’re made in the image of someone, that is just about the only thing that separates us from the animals. Universities are one way that mankind has invented to collectivise and organise the process of learning, the thinking being that by putting together lots of people who want to learn something with lots of people who know about that thing already, and who are actively themselves trying to learn more about it, that people will effectively learn more stuff. It’s actually a fairly simple plan.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the current British university policy: it seems to me that the idea is to no longer regard universities as education institutions at all. If this seems harsh to you, consider that the minister with responsibility for universities, is not the minister for education. In fact, the minister is not even in the department of education, but rather the “department of business, innovation and skills”. I have no objection to universities giving people skills, that’s fantastic. Also, it’s brilliant that we recognise that fantastic innovation comes from universities. Marvellous. However, these two terms are clearly just tacked on. Business? hang on….
British business is on the record moaning that “current graduates aren’t fit for employment”. The government continually harps on about how universities must respond to the needs of the “business community” (which is a phrase I dislike immensely) and teach more “appropriate courses”. Even vice chancellors themselves seem to be pandering to the needs of business. A university education is “sold” (arrrgh!) to students nowadays on the basis that they’ll get better, more well paid employment. Interviews with students themselves, by and large just seem to concentrate on the economics of their decision to study. They have, to use another american phrase that I’m not keen on but is appropriate “drunk the power-aid” (we don’t have “kool-aid” in the UK). It’s still true that there is overall a salary benefit to having a degree, but it seems to be rapidly being eroded, and the problems we are seeing in terms of unemployed graduates are mainly a symptom. In trying to twist the university system to their own needs, business interests have destroyed that which they wanted.
Where is the place in a business oriented university sector for the study of Plato? Or Group Theory? Or, god forbid, Marxism? I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s indoctrination, but they certainly would prefer people studying management studies to Medieval history. Even in my own discipline of fairly applied experimental physics (which is pretty well valued by the “business community”), I think this focus purely on the employment prospects of getting a degree is patently ridiculous. For a start, the economic benefit itself is a bit tenuous. A very wise friend of mine, let’s call him Mr. T-W, who is actually Canadian and therefore a dispassionate outside observer (hah! actually he’s not that dispassionate), had this extremely cogent argument to contribute:
there’s a legitimate argument to be had about the lack of good and well respected vocational training, not everyone wants to be an innovator/radical.
But on the whole the history of the last 40 years in Britain has been *business*’s failure to invest in brilliant British technological strides. Yes, academia needs to equip students with a wider set of skills and awareness of the landscape *outside* of current businesses and jobs — that’s where the next generation of growth will come from. Businesses that want training focussed on their short-term needs are in effect arguing for state subsidy.
I wouldn’t have put it quite that strongly myself, but there is a certain delicious irony about the businesses who argue constantly for deregulation and lower taxes also want the state to do their employee training for them. It’s great that they fund some research, but I do think demanding to own the curriculum as well is a step too far. And this isn’t even resorting to the even more important point that education has a benefit in and of itself, however much it may or may not benefit the “business community” and, for that matter, the economy at large.
All I can say is this: Student’s for goodness sake, GO AND DO SOMETHING INTERESTING, that you’re INTERESTED in! Do not get yourself into this ridiculous debt on the promise of being a b*tch for big business. It won’t be that fun, and it certainly won’t be as rewarding as learning about the Four Course Crop Rotation System as it relates to modern views on Feminism. Which for me personally, wouldn’t be particularly rewarding at all. Though I would support that scholarship before any kind of degree tailored to the needs of industry captains. We have a field of study dedicated to advancing human technology already, it’s called “engineering”, and it’s a brilliant thing to learn and do. We already have a thing for learning about how human markets and currencies work, and it’s called “economics”. We do not need degree courses written by big business, and we should not want them either. The tragedy of the current british higher education system is that government and industry have convinced us that we need and want them, and that anything we want and need must be sold to us.