How important is a university education to kids and the economy?

By December 6, 2011Thoughts

At various times in my career I’ve been asked to sit on panels to discuss my experiences in business, whether that be in front of people in the search marketing community or in front of high school pupils and sixth formers.

It’s a long time since my days at Parklands High School in Chorley or my college days in Preston and even my university days in Manchester. I think it’s fair to say that although I’ve got an education, it’s not the best education I could have got and it’s one which has very little to do with what I’ve been doing since I left education.

The last time I sat on such a panel one of the big topics of debate was the area of how fair £9,000 university fees are.

This has got me thinking, when the Blair government came to power in 1997 there was a shift towards university education being a standard that everyone could come to expect, they committed to getting 50% of the school leavers into education. This all sounds great and plays to the aspirations of middle Britain parents but it’s probably fair to say it’s also left us in a bit of a state, a Britain that has too few plumbers, electricians, labourers and yes, even cleaners.

The hundreds of thousands of solicitors our education system will create will have their hands full no doubt!

University has been an aspiration for many parents, I know for mine it wasn’t expected but was pushed for, but just at the time I was going to university attitudes started to change, university was becoming mandatory, if you didn’t have a degree you were almost a second class citizen.

And with this shift in public attitudes so can the movement of the goal posts, university was no longer on a grant based system, you get a loan and you pay it back as you earn. However it’s more expensive than ever, I’m always shocked to hear quite how expensive it is! In fact I lose a significant percentage from my income every month paying back these student loans. Looking back there is an argument to say that unless you’re going to take up a job that requires a vocational, degree (and/or post degree) lead qualification – such as being a doctor – you might want to consider your options a bit further before you sign up for university.

It’s very easily forgotten that universities are businesses, and big businesses at that! They pay wages, pay for some of our most impressive architectural buildings (and their upkeep) and ultimately, they make profits. I sometimes wonder if our universities focus too much on the bottom line and not enough on providing our nation’s undergraduates and postgraduates with a decent education, let alone the providing the nation with the type of workers we really need.

Whilst speaking in front of these sixth formers I asked the question: “How many of you want to go to university?” A sea of hands went up. I then went on to ask the question “what do you want to get from university?” Nothing, silence – no one would commit. A bit of prompting lead to answers like, “a better education”, “freedom from my parents”, “to get a better job”. Vague answers really that don’t get to the heart of what they are there to achieve, or at least it’s vague in that not one of them would commit to a plan of what they wanted from the other side of their university life in any specific manner.

I know the doors university can open up, but as soon as I said “you don’t have to go to university you know?” the room turned to look at me, this was something novel they hadn’t really thought about it before – in a way they hadn’t been allowed to think about it.

As soon as the talking shop was over I had chance to meet with some of the kids, many of whom wanted to shake my hand, I’m hoping because I’d gone in there and given them the chance to think about another way, another option.

What kind of world do we want to create, why are we pressuring our kids into a future of academia for them only to come out and find they have to start right at the bottom rung of the ladder where they would have done if they’d have started that job three years earlier. What type of world are we creating where we ask our children to start their working lives depressed because their aspirations can’t be realised.

I’ve got friends who’ve been to Oxford who live with the same problem, they struggle to get jobs, they have to work for free for months just to get any kind of experience.

We’ve created a lie and are making our children live it out. Destroying their confidence and our economy in the process for the sake of creating a marketplace of a university system to keep some dusty intellectuals in jobs.

We have to free up our industries to become truly creative and entrepreneurial and give our school kids the confidence, belief and self-worth to go out into the world and make something for themselves.

Leave a Reply