Thoughts on higher education

I frequently think about education and its purpose. I worked as a language teacher for a long time, and I’m currently doing a Master’s degree, so I can look at it from both sides.

Despite just turning 40, and having had to work abroad – away from my partner and close circle for months at a time –  in order to pay for my tuition fees, I feel incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity, and I’ve tried to enjoy it and get as much as I can from the experience.  Despite this, there’s no real guarantee I’ll see a return on my money.

As much as I’d love to be doing it for the love of learning, my sole purpose is to get the piece of paper and be (woosh!) instantly more employable (I hope). I enjoy it for what it is in the meantime; I’m fully aware that academia is essentially glorified navel-gazing, and while covering real world scenarios, practices and organisational behaviours, it is essentially chin-stroking, theorizing and concept positioning that matters little to the nitty-gritty of real life workplaces. For me, it is a tick box exercise,  and nothing more.

What exactly is the purpose of academia in 2016? Does it really matter anymore? With annual fees at £9,000, students are accruing enormous debts upon graduating and struggling to find graduate positions thereafter. The graduate jobs that do exist on the market pay little more than entry-level positions that are on offer for non-graduates who are starting out. To make pay-out as a graduate requires hard work, perseverance, a large slice of luck in getting a lucky break.

I had to spend months away from my home, my partner and my social network to work in the middle east, in order to raise funds for my MA. It wasn’t easy, and that was before I’d even picked up a book. I’m super fortunate in that my further studies won’t add encumber me with debt. Many more are not quite so lucky.

We’ve commodified and bestowed value on a piece of paper that opens doors for some but for many others offers a false hope, indebting themselves along the way. The education system is a throwback to when the labour market was more stable, and when educational level was a measurement for social rank and status. The modern labour market is a skills-based economy, skills that are so often not taught in university – our perceptions of education and attainment have yet to catch up.

At first glance, the introduction of tuition fees by Tony Blair’s New Labour was a a terrible idea: having allowed a generation of people free access to enlightenment and potential for career and income betterment, the door was slammed shut for those to follow – on 16th July 1998, university fees were introduced at £1,000 per year, and means-tested subsidies were replaced by loans. Not an enormous amount, but a figure significant enough to deter those from the poorest backgrounds, and introduce the first increment of hurdles for social advancement that have been added ever since.

The figure had since risen to its current figure, and there would be no surprise and shortage of outrage if that fee increased further. Many see the privatisation of education costs as being purely ideological, but in a increasingly competitive labour market the real injustice is making people study for 3 years, when they could get an equivalent position straight from school.

Commodifying the education system has yanked at the ladder of social-climbing, and allowed universities to brand themselves; it’s segmented the middle-classes even further and allowed the cookie-cutter alpha males and females an even clearer route to the top of the tree. It’s also seen the rise in personal debt as students struggle to balance the demands of living costs with the demands of finding an income to subsidise studying.

But making university education free again, and allowing those who unfortunate to benefit currently from the learning experience, isn’t going to create more graduate jobs. The internet has had such a profound effect society over the past 15 years, that even those in established careers are having to re-evaluate their roles and their livelihoods in 2016. Increasing numbers of graduates will devalue the idea of a degree even further, and leave more people jobless and disappointed.

Reflection and critical thinking are needed more than ever in an increasingly tumultuous, paradoxical world, and university life develops and strengthens one’s critical faculty.  Yet, scan any job advert and the need for critical evaluation skills are not what companies identify in the primary skills of their ideal candidates. What is required as an educational add-on, to be given practical skills and abilities in every course so that they can either perform in a working environment or have the knowledge to set-up their own businesses.

What compounds the issue is that work placements and internships are so rarely of any use to the graduate hoping to glean real insight into the day-to-day routines and pressures of work, with some candidates reduced to tea-making, photocopy and admin chores in companies that either don’t or won’t have the resources to allocate to someone to act as a mentor. These tasks should be the domain of the school-leaver, not the university graduate.

While top bosses complain that graduates are not equipped to deal with the day-to-day of the working life, few companies are prepared to roll up their sleeves and give the necessary guidance to bring these graduates up to speed. After all, making tea and pressing a button on a photocopier hardly brings a star quality to a CV once graduates have done their internship.

Having done a few internships when training as a journalist, I can say with confidence that I learned very little from my (often unpaid) time in the newsroom, often I was performing tasks that did little to test my abilities or prove my worth; if someone senior had spent 10 minutes of their time outlining what I have to do and asking what I would like to have a go at doing, it would’ve been much more valuable experience.

It seems then, that many who leave higher education are neither benefitted from their studies or the world of work, unless a kindly employer is prepared to take a chance.

So, university fees have increased by 300% in the last four years, but what exactly are students getting in return? What extras do they get for this extra cash?

A solution to this problem would be if local businesses and universities formed partnerships, where they operate in a symbiotic relationship. Degrees would be 3 (or even 4) years, with one year being given over to a work placement – the work achieved in this would be evaluated and count towards the degree. Students get a year of paid work and vital experience; employers get immediate access to graduates with job skills and an understanding of both their personal duties and the organisational culture. For £9,000 you leave with both a university degree and some on-the-job training. This would add value to education.

In a world where people are now racking up their first large debt at the age of 21, its imperative that they be given the skills to pay it off.

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