Mark Mason

Why tomorrow’s parents won’t want their children to go to university

Degrees are losing their prestige at the very moment their cost is increasing

Why tomorrow’s parents won’t want their children to go to university
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Could the current generation of parents be the first ones who won’t want their children to go to university? Until now that mortarboard photo on the sideboard has always been the dream, visual proof that your offspring have munched their way to the top of the educational food chain. Advancement by degree. But that was before tuition fees. Now there’s a price tag attached to your little one’s ‘ology’ (to quote Maureen Lipman in those BT ads), how many people will automatically see it as a good thing? Perhaps more of us will refuse to prostrate ourselves before the great god Uni? If so, that can only be a good thing.

I attended Manchester University between 1989 and 1992. Given those three years again, I wouldn’t bother — I’d get straight to work. Or rather straight back to work: after school I’d spent a year as an office junior, earning a few quid and discovering what this thing called ‘employment’ was all about. Perhaps that’s why I found university so frustrating — it was a return to school but without the uniform. There was a feeling of life being on hold, the knowledge, even as you crammed for your latest exam, that as soon as the exam was over your brain was going to jettison the material for ever. The chances of it coming in useful later were zero. University was really just a box to be ticked, something you did because everybody else did it, or at least everybody who had good enough A-level grades. Sure, conventional wisdom painted it as an ‘investment in your future’, a ‘valuable addition to your CV’, and lots of other phrases designed to cover up the truth, namely that university is a way of delaying real life for three years while you fanny around with traffic cones and tequila.

‘Yes,’ comes the standard response, ‘but university teaches you about living away from home.’ You get the same lesson if you move out and start working. Plus you’re earning money, so enabling you to have some real fun, rather than the sort that involves collecting together all your loose change before deciding whether you can afford that tricky third pint. Now students have to find nine grand a year in tuition fees on top of their kebab money, surely more school-leavers will see sense and head for the workplace rather than the dreaming spires?

This isn’t to say that no one needs university. If your job’s going to involve you operating on people’s brains or designing buildings safe enough for them to live in, then clearly you need some training. But the rest of us — really? Did we honestly learn anything at uni other than hangover cures? I studied politics, and when my second year coincided with the single most fascinating political event of recent decades (the fall of Margaret Thatcher) I learned a hell of a lot — by reading newspapers and listening to the radio. English graduates: it was three years of being allowed to read Jane Austen during office hours, wasn’t it? History graduates: ditto with Simon Schama. Geography graduates… actually, what do you do on a geography degree?

For a few years yet, university will have a snob value built into it. Most employers nabbed their degrees when they were free (that is, paid for with other people’s taxes), and so will look down on any applicant whose name isn’t followed by those two or three little letters. But more and more the positions of power will come to be occupied by people whose degrees cost them a packet, who’ll have first-hand experience of questioning whether that money actually bought them anything. ‘You must go to university,’ their parents told them. ‘Then you’ll always have the qualification to fall back on.’ Instead of being a safety net, though, the degree of the future will be a millstone, sapping your wage packet for decades as you repay your student debt. Let’s see how long the mortarboard retains its sheen then.

The other factor — and the reason the state can no longer afford to fund degrees in the first place — is that the number of people taking them has risen so astronomically. This in itself will help remove the false mystique from the phrase ‘university-educated’. Did you attend the University of South Lincolnshire (formerly Sleaford Kindergarten)? Then you might as well not have bothered. Instead of asking ‘Did you go to university?’, employers will ask ‘Which university did you go to?’ And if you need help with the correct answers to that, think back to the episode of Yes, Minister when Sir Humphrey says that the universities have to be protected — ‘both of them’.

This assumes that employers will even ask about your education. Some (The Spectator among them) already ask would-be interns to remove it from their CV, preferring to assess candidates on their ideas for the job and how they present them, rather than on a list of academic qualifications. I predict that more and more companies will follow suit. This isn’t an anti-university argument in itself — it could be that those employers still believe a degree makes you a better prospect, but don’t want to prejudice their decision. Perhaps, perhaps not. Similarly school-leavers might genuinely view a degree as a worthwhile investment rather than a necessary line on their CV — but if they’re no longer allowed to include that line, will they still bet 30 grand on it?

If you want a one-line argument on the issue, it’s that Neil Kinnock went to university but Winston Churchill didn’t. ‘Why am I the first Kinnock for a thousand generations,’ asked the Ginger Gasbag, ‘to be able to get to university?’ Well, Neil, the oldest one in this country is Oxford, established just over 900 years ago, and that’s about 50 generations, tops. Clearly university doesn’t do much for your maths.

All the people I’ve ever heard expressing regret at not going to university are perfect examples of why you don’t need to. They’ve all achieved massively in their own fields, largely because they understand human nature and are good at dealing with people (any technical knowledge you need for a job is best learned on the job). Why does ‘education’ have to mean an institution? Life is its own education, as well as its own exam. Sure, you need school to set you up with the basics, but university is about narrowing everything down to the one subject you really want to devote yourself to — and how can you possibly know what that is at 18? A friend of mine has got it the right way round: after a long and successful career in the City he’s now planning, in his early sixties, to take a degree. University isn’t just wasted on the young — it’s a waste of your youth.