What’s the Use of University?

by Beth Cherryman

University fees are going up, graduates’ job prospects are coming down, and social mobility is practically non-existent; so why go to university?

I think people go to university for four reasons.  Firstly because it delays having to get a proper job, secondly because it is relatively cheap in the short run, thirdly because they feel their school education was somewhat lacking, and lastly because they believe it will give them the opportunity to get a job they find interesting or well paid (or both).

With an increase in fees only one of these reasons will be truly applicable, and in my experience ‘to be educated’ is usually the last reason people would give to explain their “occupation: student” status.

And why should they?  It’s not like we don’t have an education system beginning at the age of four.

It has constantly puzzled me that one has to go through their entire schooling – 14 years – to get to a stage where they can be educated, namely university.

Apparently my degree bestowed upon me a set of  “transferable skills”.  No, that doesn’t involve a screwdriver, instead I am now able to read, write, and think.  Why was it necessary to wait until I turned twenty to learn these skills?

I do not really see what makes thinking and communicating so difficult that it was impossible to learn while I was at school.  Then university could be about thoroughly engaging with your chosen subject, and not have to essentially waste time teaching you how to express yourself and your thoughts.

I was told that university students were not expected to say anything original (I interpreted that as ‘have an original thought’) until they reached PhD level.  That rather points in the direction that undergraduate degrees (and Masters degrees) are not about education in the sense of advancing their chosen field, or even contributing to it, they are simply undertaken so the prospective job seeker can claim to know how to read, write, and think.

At this point I should probably acknowledge that degrees such as engineering and law, that is vocational degrees, are understandably necessary to enter their respective careers.  But these degrees, I would argue, are in fact training for the student’s chosen profession, and being trained is not the same as being educated.

The intrinsic value of university seems to have been lost.  With many desirable jobs requiring a degree, and humanities and social science degrees advertising themselves in terms of transferable skills, universities have come to be viewed as stepping-stones – good if they help the student find acceptable employment, but not good in themselves.

So why pay up and go to university? Because for some unknown and obscure reason university has become the new school.  It’s necessary because it gives you the basics.  Perhaps if schools functioned as schools, and taught everyone the basics, universities could go back to being for ‘lovers of wisdom’.  Universities could return to purpose.  Then, just maybe, devoid of all the people who enroll to compete in the job market there would be considerably less strain on the institutions and their finances.