There is a ‘common sense’ view that currently prevails in the UK about university education. I’m calling it the ‘Daily Mail’ view. It consists of three myths:
1. Too many students go to university.
2. Too many people have degrees making it harder to find skilled jobs for everyone. A degree is paradoxically essential and useless.
3. Most students waste their time at uni drinking, partying, getting STDs and not really doing much work – all at the taxpayers’ expense.
In conversations about the protests, I have encountered all of these arguments. They are all myths. Here, I want to provide you with the counter-arguments so that next time you come across one of these myths, you will know how to destroy it.
Myth 1 – Too many students go to university
Thinking that too many students go to university represents a particular view of education. For proponents of this view, education has purely instrumental value. The value of education is its ability to lead to a job and generate economic growth. This logic is repeatedly asserted in the Browne Report.
The ability of a university degree to get a person a job and improve economic growth is only one of its values. Education has further instrumental values. People with higher levels of education are more likely to be healthy and to be satisfied with their work and leisure time. Education creates citizens who are publicly engaged – the higher the level of education, the more likely a person is to vote and to volunteer (i.e. take part in Cameron’s ‘Big Society’).
Education makes society safer. More than 50% of male offenders and 71% of female offenders in the UK have no qualifications. Nearly half of prisoners have literacy skills below level 1 and 65% have numeracy skills below level 1. Education improves a person’s chances in life and sense of self-worth, making it less likely they will turn to crime. Also, education can generate a new start for those in prison: skills, training and knowledge can turn lives around. As Victor Hugo put it, “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”
However, education has more than mere instrumental value – it has intrinsic value. It is a good in itself. The value of education cannot be quantified. Education does more than prepare a young person for a particular job, or provide a means to a safer society or a more engaged citizenry. Lest we forget…
Universities are for education not job preparation.
Many people study for a degree out of interest or curiosity. A degree in Art History or American Literature, for example, could be a way of exploring a life-long interest in the subject. This is particularly true of mature student, who aren’t necessarily doing a degree for career advancement but out of interest. With tuition fees rising to £9000 a year for undergraduate study, what mature students will burden themselves with that debt if they have a family to look after or a mortgage to pay? A degree will become a luxury that only rich curious people can afford.
I want to point out that this is not an elitist argument; I am not saying that people with higher education are somehow better. The point is, everyone should have the choice to partake in higher education. People learn in different ways and university isn’t for everyone. But universities are sites of learning from which nobody should be excluded, and they certainly shouldn’t be excluded because they can’t afford it. Education benefits the individual and society: it should be encouraged and it should be accessible for everyone.
Myth 2 – Too many degrees distorts the jobs market
It does seem to be true that employers increasingly require candidates to have a degree, and yet lots of people with degrees can’t get jobs. Any graduate scrambling around for whatever temp or bar work they can get will attest to this. But there are two points here.
Firstly, we’re in a recession! Getting a job is hard for everybody. Degree or no degree, it’s tough out there. And unfortunately, this is only going to get worse. With the government slashing public sector jobs, redundancies are going to be a big feature of 2011 – mainly redundancies for women as they make up the majority of public sector, part-time and temporary workers. Not only that, but the drastic cuts are going to slow economic growth because there will be higher unemployment, therefore less people paying tax and spending money, making overall recovery slower. If the government invested in job creation (Keynesian economics 101) we would get out of recession quicker.
Also, recent graduates are finding it hard to get work not because they have a degree, but because they don’t have enough work experience. This is due to age, not educational attainment. This is why the young get hit hard in a recession. You could reply that young people should therefore spend less time in education and get into the job market quicker, but this leads to my second point…
My argument in the previous section was that education is about learning not job preparation. Students get value from their degree that doesn’t necessarily translate into getting a job…
There is no such thing as too many degrees!
And anyway, if people stopped going to university and went into the job market quicker, the job market would still be saturated, just with less qualified people.
Myth 3 – University students are just out for a piss-up
Dismissing students as sponging layabouts in contrast to hard-working “tax-payers” is typical of late-capitalist society. This devaluation of the role of ‘student’ finds parallels in the devaluation of other social groups. For example, single mothers that live on state benefits are viewed as spongers depending on the welfare state, having increasing numbers of children just to exploit well-meaning tax-payer. Not only that, but they’re probably committing benefit fraud, just to screw the middle-classes even further.
In late capitalist societies, where the market economy is valued above all else, any activity that is founded in a different value-system from “the bottom-line” is considered deviant, unwanted and unsuccessful. Hence child-rearing (an obviously essential part of any society if it is to reproduce itself) is assigned a second-class status. Similarly, studying (an activity based on intellectual or personal development) is deemed a parasite on society. Learning? Thinking critically? Creativity? Why would we want that?
This is unless, of course, education is re-conceptualised as a necessary evil that citizens endure before becoming profit-producing members of the formal economy. If we re-conceive education in these terms it becomes useful to market capitalism. And if going to university is extortionately expensive, only those members of society who are economically profitable can afford it; hence eliminating the unwanted elements from social advancement (economically unproductive reproducers, artists and thinkers). This is exactly how the Browne Report perceives education.
The status war against certain groups is, therefore, unsurprising. Undermining students supports the government’s argument for restructuring economic distribution – why would such a non-valuable group as students require state support? If they are “successful” enough (i.e. earn enough money) they’ll be able to pay for their own education.
To fight this insidious tactic…
Students must reassert their value.
We have to find confidence in the work that we do and maintain both its intrinsic value and the value it has socially. It is true that there are students who are just out for a good time. But they get kicked out, or get terrible grades which bites-them-in-the-ass in the job market or if they want to study further. I have worked extremely hard for my education. And I defy anyone to study fulltime and work two jobs, and tell me that’s an easy life.
So, there you have it. The Daily Mail myths are founded in an instrumental, economistic view of education (surprise, surprise!). This short-sightedness is a product of our era. But we must resist it. Next time you have these myths beaten down your throat, you will know how to fight back!