Fraud has been perpetrated against the nation’s youth. It has been perpetrated by successive governments. This fraud is not tuition fees in higher education but the status granted to that education in the first place. Universities are pillars of civilisation but millions of men and women would be better off not going to them. Britain would save millions in the process. Before abolishing tuition fees, then, we should minimise worthless tuition.
Between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s, the proportion of young people going into universities across the Western European Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development rose from about 20% to about 40%. Many, doubtless, have benefited from this evolution. Many, on the other hand, have not.
I could have lived without university. I took a mixed humanities course, with politics and creative writing, but learned nothing life and Wikipedia could not have taught me. I remember two things: my creative writing tutor telling me I used too many adjectives, which was true, and a politics lecturer claiming that everybody is bisexual, which is not.
(Aware of the pointlessness of the endeavour, I went home and signed up with a distance learning course. This was cheaper, obviously, and wasted a lot less time. I recommend it to potential undergraduates.)
Naturally, my work has little to do with either field. There might be too many people working in politics but there are a lot less of them than there are politics students. Will Self observed, meanwhile, that all of Britain’s professional writers could attend a modestly sized cocktail party. The same is true of many courses, but especially those in the creative arts and the social sciences. There were more journalism students at my university than there are journalists in the United Kingdom.
Countless young people have been stranded in the jobs market, clutching drama, art, music and gender studies degrees, with their only hope of rescue, in many cases, being big, black ships with names like “Call Centre” and “Department Store”. They have wasted time that could have been spent pursuing more valuable skills and experience, and have been weighed down with a cruel burden of false hope. I remember a creative writing tutor referencing the future publication of our novels. At the time I thought he might be joking. Now I know he was.
This is only one reason for applicants to be concerned. Education is about far more than careers. It is about enriching our knowledge and abilities. Here, in many cases, higher education also fails. The arts can be taught to a limited degree, and the systemisation of one’s work, and herding together of diverse students, can inhibit, not enable, the flowering of talent. The dogmatic leftism of the social sciences, meanwhile, can make them nothing less than propagandistic.
Many students, on many different courses, do not even expect to be inspired. They go because they feel it is an obligation. To some extent it is. Many employers require a bachelor’s degree as a sort of baseline standard from an applicant. This helps many graduates find better paying jobs. On the other hand, it makes no sense. The mere fact of having a degree does not speak volumes, pages or paragraphs about a person. One could learn more from a five minute conversation, in most cases, than a few words attached to a CV. Experience on the job would often do more good than three years of occasional lectures.
The changing status of higher education was created by progressive optimism and, increasingly, managerial opportunism. Egalitarian ideas about human potential let elites believe that anybody could be academic. Elitist conceptions of the good life let egalitarians believe they should be. They were wrong. Many people are not academic in the sense of their abilities or of their interests. Still, it made political and economic sense. Governments promised higher numbers of undergraduates to promote the illusion of social mobility. Universities welcomed this expansion as more students mean more income.
But what about the students? I feel for them; attacked from one side as drunken louts and from the other as pitiful snowflakes; with debt looming over them through their young adult lives. Nonetheless, we should think hard before echoing Corbyn’s crowd-pleasing call to scrap tuition fees. Whether people should have the right to free education is one thing. Before that argument is had, however, we should think about the value of that education.
People need something to do. In an age of cheap labour and mechanisation, finding jobs, never mind good jobs, can be troublesome. But in many cases higher education is an inefficient and expensive means of filling time. We should think of more effective and ingenious alternatives.