Is university still worth it?

There's a cracking hatchet job on the sector that seems to be buried away in the Sunday Telegraph's "Sunday" magazine today.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The supplement’s front page contrasts a student who’s doing accountancy at a firm as an apprentice with a student who’s doing an accountancy degree.

Our apprentice doesn’t envy his university friends:

I feel that a few of my friends are trying to extend their youth a bit by delaying going to work,” he says. “Many of them aren’t that interested in their subjects.”

The author (with her first in classics from Bristol) signs off the front page piece with:

But the average student now leaves university with debt of £45,000, which is a lot to pay for the memory of a busy social life and a lack of adult responsibilities.”

Inside, someone did an HNC apprenticeship in Engineering Management with BAE systems:

She and the other apprentices at BAE established their own social life. “We’d go clubbing every Friday after work. I still had fun. I don’t feel like I missed out.”

Then meet Albert Tait, who dropped out of the University of Glasgow and ended up on a scheme funded by Facebook to get young people into journalism. The piece says that his course consisted of three hours of lectures a week attended in person, and all the rest were delivered online:

Factoring in university strikes and Cop26, I attended just 15 in-person lectures in the three months I was there. I found myself writing half-hearted essays and watching my online tutorials at three times the normal speed… I waited for it to fall into place but it never did, and I woke up one morning and just thought, ‘I don’t want to be here.’

Not all universities are bad though. The final case study is Daniel Dipper, first of his immediate family to go to university and the first from his comprehensive in Peterborough to go to… Oxford:

Part of his confidence in his future earning capability inevitably comes from attending one of the top two universities in the country. He knows he’s getting value for money, as his college, Magdalen, subsidises each student to the tune of £10,000.”

It’s not just about the teaching and learning though:

I’ve definitely seen how my writing skills have benefitted from my degree, but I also do a lot of extracurricular activities. I’m the undergraduate president of my college, which involves me writing lots of emails, and working with people from a wide range of backgrounds. I’m also librarian-elect of the Oxford Union, which I’ve found useful for developing logistical skills, networking as well as public speaking,”

It’s easy to scoff at this sort of stuff. But it strikes me that there are important bits in here about both instrumental attitudes to qualifications, and (online) teaching and learning activity.

Naturally the social capital acquisition is dismissed as frippery “social life” / childhood extension in the first examples, and Charlie Bucket / boarding school “rounded grad with connections” in the Oxford example.

Nevertheless it’s true that it’s too often taken for granted by many across the sector in all sorts of contexts.

It’s why I found Welsh education minister Jeremy Miles’ speech on the idea of a student citizenship guarantee across the sector this week so interesting.

We should never let social capital acquisition – with limited “bridging” social capital at that – be the exclusive preserve of students attending two universities.

Yet this is where we are headed if we underfund SUs, fail to consider extracurriculars from an access and participation point of view, and choke maintenance funding such that only the richest can afford to do anything other than the core of their degree.

And then on online teaching. We should beware its effectiveness and efficiency for all the same reasons that we should beware Spotify and Netflix.

If lecture theatres are uncomfortable, one way content distribution centres, it probably is more accessible and efficient to deliver lectures as recordings. But if we don’t replace, hour for hour, activities that don’t need to be in person with activities that do, we by definition devalue what’s being delivered.

However amazing or skillful, the value we place on an episode of something on Netflix or a song on Spotify isn’t the same as seeing it at the cinema / theatre or hearing the song on a disc of vinyl or live.

And we become more isolated, and less social, in the process.

That’s not an argument for chalk, or sages on stages. But it is an argument for not forgetting that much of what we know is valuable (more so in recent decades) about HE is social. We ignore that at our peril.

Stuart Wilks-Heeg puts this much better than me:

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