Friday, 5 August 2016

University Education: a Costly Mistake?

We are now at that time of year when 'A' level students are starting to become apprehensive about the publication of this year's public examination results. For many school leavers there will be thoughts about whether they will have achieved the required grades to secure the course they have applied for at their chosen university. But with the prospect of massive debts at the end of that course and the value of gaining a degree having been diminished by their sheer ubiquity, it is becoming more and more questionable whether embarking on a course of university study is really worth the candle.

It would seem logical that those school pupils who are not innate academics should rather move as soon as possible into the world of vocational training and work, building a career there rather than saddle themselves (and their parents) with an enormous bill while pursuing a course in a subject that a future employer neither needs, nor wants, thereby sinking into both debt and the despondency of chasing gainful employment while being academically over-qualified.

Back in the 1970s - when I left school - universities were regarded as institutions of high learning, the preserve of those with marked academic aptitude. For those who were not academically inclined, there were plenty of alternative paths to follow.

In those days many youngsters chose training courses - as an apprentice, for example - learning to become a skilled tradesman (oh, for more of these!). It was Tony Blair, coming to power in 1997, who advocated that as many school leavers as possible, whether academically inclined or not, should regard university as their automatic next step. I always found this to be paradoxical given the fact Blair spent most of his time in office stuffing diversity down our throats.

Many school leavers got it into their heads that vocational training to become a plumber or electrician was in some way socially inferior; that being a tradesman was tantamount to belonging to a lower social class. The message seemed to be if you don't go to university, you have somehow failed and it was in some way shameful.

The fact that more and more school leavers were hell-bent on following an academic course they had absolutely no interest in, or aptitude for, didn't seem to matter. It was of no surprise, consequently, that the university course drop-out rate rose sharply, as many students soon realised they were spending their time in a state of abject boredom, studying a course which had very limited appeal to any future employer. This situation has now been exacerbated by the fact the courses have become particularly expensive.

Blair's plan was rooted in crude social engineering and we have witnessed during the past 20 years the creation of a plethora of new courses with so little depth and even less academic significance. As a consequence, our universities have over-expanded. We now have a situation in which there are more and more courses with fewer and fewer lectures to attend and less and less work to complete.

The result of all this is that university degrees no longer have the rarity value that once made them a reliable career launch pad. It would be naive to think that employers do not separate a degree awarded by a top university from a pointless qualification from some Mickey Mouse institution.

Have you ever come across anything so preposterous as encouraging youngsters to follow courses in which they have neither interest in or aptitude for? We desperately need more and better vocational training and apprenticeships. In this age of huge student debts we must warn all those who are intending to take up a place at university (and their parents) that, unless they think through all their options, it could prove to be a very expensive mistake indeed.

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