Possessing a university degree is no longer special. It seems that everyone and their dog has a degree. Thanks to Tony Blair’s goal of insisting that 50% of school-leavers go to university, we have come to the point where being a graduate does not necessarily confer enhanced job prospects. It also means that the very nature of having a university degree is devalued.
I do feel that many people who go to university simply go because it is what everyone else is doing and it is what they are encouraged to do by their schools – even if it isn’t the right pathway for them. In fact, our whole education system seems to be geared to getting the best results in order to get into the best university we can. We have to understand that not everyone is academically-minded; some are vocationally-orientated. They simply would have been better off developing their skills for three years and actually be more prepared for the working world.
We also get a lot of people who feel that university is three-year taxpayer-funded party, and as a result, just waste the resources offered to them. Eventually, many of them end up on the unemployment scrap-heap after graduation. Whilst university isn’t just about improving your job prospects, I cannot help but think that if you want to go to university just for the social experience then it should not be at the expense of the taxpayer or the government.
In addition, the more people that go to university, the less attention that each individual student gets from their lecturers and other university staff. Many universities are simply saturated with students, meaning that it can be very easy to get lost in a crowd, and not receive the proper guidance and support you may need throughout your time at university. Of course, one could argue that universities should hire more staff to cope with the increase in students, but reading in the news about how universities are laying off staff, I am not optimistic that this is a realistic option currently. This is not to mention that universities are often run as businesses these days and staff are essentially a cost, so it is not in their interest to hire more staff. It is however in their interest to enrol more students, as they receive more money per student registered.
To conclude, I do not think that university should be seen as the only respectable pathway for school-leavers. I believe that the government should invest more into high-quality apprenticeships and other routes for people to learn a useful skill or trade. We should also promote the idea that one does not need to go to university straightaway at the age of eighteen. Instead of pushing people to go to university when they are not ready, they might benefit from being in the working world for a bit and then make a more informed decision on whether going to university is really for them.
Britain is a country that loves its myths, and one of our favourites is the myth of the Great British Meritocracy: the idea that those most deserving will be rewarded. This myth is evoked especially often when it comes to this interminable debate about university admissions. We all know the argument: the market is saturated with graduates, making a degree ‘worth less’ than it once was. Shouldn’t university just be for the best and brightest? Why not just restrict university admissions and let the Great British Meritocracy do the rest?
Except that the myth of the Great British Meritocracy is just that: a myth. The ugly reality about the university admissions debate has nothing at all to do with merit, and everything to do with social class. There are not too many people going to university; there are just too many people who don’t believe that higher education should be for everyone.
After all, if we really need to stop so many students coming to university, then who has to go? Is it students who can’t quite hit the entry requirements? Or students who just can’t handle the pressure once they arrive? It’s here that the myth of meritocracy rears its head, allowing people to claim that if students can’t attain or can’t cope, then surely university just isn’t for them.
But the facts tell a different story. In 2014-15, an appalling 39% percent of GSCE students on free school meals achieved 5 A*- C grades, compared to 66% of all other students. These are the students who slip through the cracks of the education system long before university. Meanwhile, those who do make it into higher education leave with an average of £7000 more debt than their wealthier counterparts. Often obliged to work alongside their studies and dealing with the constant pressure of financial worries, it’s sad rather than surprising that 8% of working class students drop out during their first year.
The grim truth is that when it comes to university, the odds are stacked against poorer students from the start. If there really were too many students at university, there’s no doubt about who would be first in line for the chop. When people talk about restricting university admissions in terms of merit, they create a haze of respectability around what their words really imply: that higher education is for the upper and middle classes, and perhaps, maybe, for some very lucky working class people who happen to be exceptional.
Higher education was once about bettering the individual and society. In the 1966 Robbins report, which introduced maintenance grants, the purpose of university was to create ‘not just specialists but rather cultivated men and women’. Today, this seems quaint in its idealism. Higher education is a business, and the focus of business is monetary worth. Yet the real worth of education has always been in its role as the very foundation of democracy. To say that a degree can be ‘worth less’ for being more accessible is a dangerous lie meant to shut out those who are already disadvantaged. Don’t be taken in.
(Image courtesy of The Telegraph)