Sunday, 10 November 2013

Are too many people going to university?

As an educator and philosopher I cannot emphasise the importance of using the mind and expanding it to its greatest potential. I am a fervent believer of physical and mental exercise, stretching the body and the mind to gain physical strength and mental ability. But schooling and prolonged schooling are not synonymous with education and for many students the option of delaying earning a living should not be taken at all. The mind can be expanded through skills learned while working – and often this is the most rewarding and most authentic way to improve knowledge and hence earning capacity.

Over the past two decades increasing numbers of pupils have been encouraged to enter further education, ‘to go to uni’ as it’s irreverently called, as if it were a holiday camp. Indeed, some of the pupils I have known have been more interested in the nightlife than in the quality of the degree that they are purchasing. Naturally, such candidates are encouraged to invest their time in learning through work or they are encouraged to take a year or two off to mature before they set upon a massive investment of tens of thousands of pounds that may or may not bring them much relevant education.

Arguably, the younger generations have been subject to a subtle social engineering policy: because of the all the regulations, minimum wage laws, and other restrictions on job creation, the employment market for young people is tight. Far better for the government if these young people were herded into universities to keep them from increasing the unemployment statistics, and what better than that this is justified in the name of education? Education, many economists will espouse, is positively correlated with economic growth … true, but the causation is not necessarily the way implied. As we become more productive and wealthy, we are more likely to invest in education; education itself does not necessarily produce more wealth. (We are not speaking about basic literacy and numeracy skills here, which certainly are causal factors in wealth production). Wealth is produced by action and by shuffling thousands of otherwise employable and creative minds into prolonged formal education, and much is thereby lost for the economy. And what a tragedy it is that these students have to now pay for the privilege of being unproductive and three years down the road have to begin the hard slog of paying off their debts, which, according to some estimates could rise to over £50,000. Compound the interest on that and the pain is palpable.

Social engineering is the attempt to mould society according to political criteria. In its most brutal forms, we tend to look at the Soviet Union or Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge, but we should not think that our societies are far removed from such utopian ideologies. Since the 1900s, the UK has rolled out a welfare state that sought, under the guise of protecting the weak, to control people’s income and productivity; as various policies failed, more controls were demanded by all parties and when they failed, even more controls, regulations, and licences to live followed. If you’re sceptical of this history, then pick up a history of the twentieth century and join the dots: we now pay on average 40.9% taxation (according to the Adam Smith Institute) compared to our ancestors who in 1900 paid 2% income tax and a concomitantly lower burden overall.

But decades of state controlled schooling have left millions believing that being micromanaged by the state is somehow normal and even progressive compared to the darker ages of minimal state intervention. Part of that trend is to encourage young people away from authentically productive work and into higher degrees, where many of them learn very little compared to what could be learned working. It’s not that a university education is wrong – it can be immensely rewarding and enjoyable in many aspects (intellectual and social), but when it is used as a policy to enrich the nation or to keep people from increasing the unemployment statistics then the glory of higher academic study is tarnished. Universities are for those who enjoy and excel at higher learning, and when we look at the population as a whole and their abilities and dispositions, that will always be a minority of people, perhaps 10% or less. But we shouldn’t put quotas on these numbers – that’s something governments like to do!

Education and continued learning are indeed vital to individual empowerment and a more contented life. But we’re in a world in which adaptability and mental agility are increasingly critical virtues: no matter what level of education we reach, the ability to turn our mind to problems enables us to increase our productivity and thereby serve our fellow citizens so much more than the possession of a piece of paper costing several thousands of pounds. Unfortunately, formal education tends to converge onto similar patterns that are inconsistent with the aims of mental empowerment: because they work on economies of scale and in turn must attract students and grants, modern universities must be managed in a way to keep costs low and revenues high – it’s a simple business model and there’s nothing wrong in that, except that the courses become subtly solidified by textbooks and powerpoint presentations, but commonly recycled reading lists (these abound at the lower levels and it’s only a matter of time before they creep into university courses); in turn the modern student plays the game, finds out what the course requirements are and learns to pass the required exams as they passed the A-levels and GCSEs before. Some resort pilfering of online essays or approach friends and outside tutors to write their essays. The integrity of the university system will slowly be lost but no one will notice except future historians looking back at the decline of the western mind. This also implies that the great minds are turned from lecturing and influencing to management and acquisition of funds. No doubt many will cry, ‘no, that doesn’t happen at our university!’ Oh, but it will. The old creative guard will be replaced by systemisers and managerially minded academics. I once predicted to an amiable Oxford professor that Oxford would be trumped by the polytechnics one day for a failure to embrace some fashionable new lecturing mode. And so it happened: Oxford Brookes scored higher than Oxford. Probably because the former used powerpoint presentations. (Actually it was that Brookes’s academics had published more – but of what quality?) The modern Scholasticism will not debate how many angels fit on a pin head but how many cafes can be rented out on campus, how many students can be fit into a lecture room, the university’s standing in the league tables, the successful number of research grants awarded … True academic and free thinking will be lost in the process.

So we return to the seventeen year old student currently applying to university. If he or she terms it ‘uni’, then it’s probably not for them. If they are concerned about the huge debt that they will garner, it is probably not for them. If they just want to waste three years of their lives, then they would be better touring the world and working its bars and doing charitable work. On the other hand, if they burn to learn more, if the have that unquenchable appetite for knowledge and for seeking answers to complex questions, if they want to delve into the books and journals and empower their minds and understanding of life’s secrets … then it’ll be more than worth it. But how many are truly like that? Not many.

Coming down from the rarefied strata of university education, many young people can learn more through apprentices and work experience. What I often counsel those who are not academically inclined, is that they should learn through work, learn from what others are doing, and particularly learn how business works. Although the public sector takes up a massive one in five jobs in the UK (and another 25% working indirectly for government budgets), more than half the population will work for the private sector. It is here that wealth production and genuine job creation take place; it is here that fortunes can be made by the adaptive and enthusiastic. Formal schooling teaches us to get a job – but what about creating jobs? What about setting up and running your own business? What about following your dreams? That can rarely be taught by the universities, for they are educational institutions not entrepreneurial schools. A business degree teaches the vocabulary and skills to look after someone else’s business, whereas real experience, real work, and the courage to set off alone can only be had from outside the formal educational establishments.
Before we lose our universities to a supermarket mentality (or even to a culture akin to premier league management) let’s give our young people a different vision: yes, continue in education through the degree if it appeals and the debt is worth carrying, but otherwise, pick up some books on entrepreneurs and starting up businesses, get experience and go forth and create jobs!

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