Education has been in the United Kingdom news of late; apart from the debate regarding the negative impact of Covid-19 on pupils and students, to whether attending university is actually that beneficial to future employment. Furthermore, is it fair to lumber thousands of students with horrendous debt, just so that they can say that they have gained a degree?
At one time, almost up until the late 70’s you had to have either very comfortably off parents and attending a private school, or had a genius gene within you to even have a chance of getting a place at university.
At that time you had the ‘Oxbridge’ duo and their swanky colleges and dreaming spires, or about half-a-dozen so called and well regarded ‘Redbrick’ universities that catered for Grammar School entrants with working-class chips on their shoulders. These temples of learning churned out blue-stockinged young ladies and worryingly serious young men clothed entirely in corduroy, who were destined to become politicians, captains of industry, lawyers, and in turn academics themselves, thus bringing to a full circle the established order of things and in turn the British ‘establishment’ in all its glory.
Then some ghastly ‘leftie’ politicians thought it wise to open up all this learning to the working classes and beyond and this has been the pattern of university education ever since.Personally, at the time and for three decades on, I thought the democratisation of higher education was a huge benefit to both the young people who took up university places in their droves, and for the country, which would be gaining an ever more intelligent and capable workforce to match any nation in the world; but did it? Now I’m not so sure!
THE GOLD STANDARD DEGREE?
At one time it was fashionable to assume that a university education was appropriate for almost any young man or woman. It was deemed to be essential in a young persons development whether that person was academically driven or not; now, I think we know better than that. It has seemed to me for quite some time now that a university course studied at one of the dozens of new universities in the United Kingdom was less about education and learning and more about a sort of late-teen/early-twenties right-of-passage and a pleasant interregnum between school and a proper job.
Universities themselves becoming overwhelmingly ‘commercial’ - in that, educational excellence, was only part of what a university was about. And it seemed to me that all sides of this complex equation were happy enough with the outcomes until a number of serious issues raised their ugly heads.
Firstly, government couldn’t keep its implied promise of mostly ‘free’ university education and so grants were generally dispensed with and fees started to rise and rise until graduates were facing huge £40,000 plus debts on completion of their courses that would chip away at their work salaries for years to come.
Then, as if to make things even worse, the university degree - the gold-standard upon what this type of education is judged, began to lose its lustre, with potential employers complaining of falling standards and government forced to face some unpalatable facts. This being, too many vaguely qualified social-scientists and out-reach-workers, but not enough skilled technical workers on which any economy thrives. Traditional trade apprenticeships went into decline and governments jolted out of their complacency by a ‘real’ skills crisis whereupon recruiting a plumber or electrician was almost impossible until tradesmen from Poland and other EU nations were introduced to fill the gap.
However, I think it will take quite some time still, to convince parents that attending university might not be the best option for young John or Jenny, particularly when other, perhaps better options, are not available to them. Let’s face it, we parents like to discreetly show-off about our kids going onto university when we know in our-heart-of-hearts on occasions that other paths to further education, such as a trade apprenticeships, might be much better for them and their future happiness. I will be totally honest and put my hand up on this one; both my kids went to ‘Uni’ - even though at the time I didn’t think that one of them actually wanted, or needed to go. Parental pressure and vanity can be a negative element sometimes you know.
STUDENTS: WHAT’S BEST FOR THEM?
I have this ill-thought-out theory that the current generation is about 10 years behind my own generation in both thought, deed, and maturity. For instance, I believe that 21 year old students are much less mature in almost every way than when my own generation were at that same age. Ergo - Thirty now equals 20 - Forty - equals 30 - and so on.
However, on a different level, they are more socially sophisticated and knowing than my own generation, partly because of the ability to go on ‘gap-year’ odysseys to parts of the world the generation before, could not afford until retirement beckoned. Also, with the internet and all its works and with the access to any information available at a press of a computer key, surely self-education is not as tortuous as it once was? Yet, given all these supposed plusses, I am not so sure that this generation of young people are any better off than young people of yesteryear.
Indeed, I’m told that gaining a decent degree is not the big-deal it once was - either because of the blatant upward manipulation of grades, or in some cases, the meaningless nature of the degree course itself. These loosely defined attitudes held by some employers in particular, make it doubly difficult for the committed student to make an impact on society when he or she eventually graduates. Perhaps, it might be for the best, that parents in particular, take all this into account when they seek to advise their teenage children on further educational options - i.e. what’s best for them, not what might suit the social aspirations of mum and dad?