Quality assurance for the university of life
Most of my adult life has been spent working in universities. It is what I do, and I do it because I believe in the power of education, at its best, to change lives and enrich the community. That does not mean that I believe that only those who go through higher education make valuable contributions. No matter how far we push up higher education participation, there will always be some who will not wish to, may not be able to, or should not try to go to university. These are not second class citizens. But I do believe that universities and colleges help to sustain a civilised, knowledgeable, tolerant and cultured society.
So what should we make of Alan Sugar, businessman and television personality? In an interview last week with the Daily Telegraph, this is what he was reported as saying about his own educational background:
‘Does he regret not having had a formal education, going to Oxbridge, perhaps? “I don’t think the outcome would have been any different. And I would perceive three years at university as a waste of time. I would have already made £200,000 by then. I’m a commercial person, not an academic.”’
A little further in the interview he elaborated as follows:
‘The thing is, I’ve been in the university of life, you see, and you can say to these people who come out with their two-point-ones, or whatever, that’s fine but you know nothing. We’re going to put you into a practicable environment now where you begin to learn… When you become an expert is when you start rolling up your sleeves on the shop floor.’
I have lots of respect for those who overcome educational disadvantage, or indeed who succeed without the educational assistance provided to many. But what Lord Sugar is saying is something else: he is suggesting that higher education is something that may provide a kind of cerebral pleasure and a sense of social superiority, but nothing that benefits society. This is a destructive and downright silly message. Those people who pursue their entrepreneurial instincts and start up a business will, these days, often have to have or employ someone who has advanced academic knowledge within highly specialised fields. Or, where major multinationals now make investments in developed countries, they will almost always need highly skilled graduates to staff their businesses; without them they will not come.
Lord Sugar’s ‘university of life’ is something we all go through at some stage. Sometimes it is the work on some shop floor, sometimes it may be the heartaches and disasters that afflict people in their personal lives, sometimes it is the struggle to step beyond what some people appear to have been born into. Often the university of life is the university.