Is a university education losing its value?
Have we come to a higher education turning point? Are we entering a phase of history in which a university degree is going to be seen as a waste of time, effort and money?
Why am I asking? Well, for much of the period since the Second World War a key consensus in most of the world has been the belief in the value and efficacy of education, including higher education. Accompanying this consensus has been a commitment to increasing the proportion of the population to benefit from a university degree, to the point where everybody, regardless of background, means, gender or ethnic origin, would be entitled to enter higher education provided only that they had the ability and talent.
However, this consensus has come under pressure, as a growing number of people question the case for it. Partly this has been prompted by talk of an ‘education bubble’ (the notion that the personal cost of higher education is not recovered during the subsequent career facilitated by it).
Yesterday’s Observer newspaper carried a personal statement by columnist Philippa Young in which she explained why she abandoned an Oxford MSc programme after just one week, having concluded that it would not provide her with any benefits. Perhaps the two reasons that should concern us most in her reasoning are that universities are obsessed with formal tradition at the expense of pedagogy, and that they lack a capacity for cross-disciplinary intellectual inquiry.
Maybe one might want to argue that these problems are specific to Oxford. But we may now be coming to a phase in which more generally the growing loss of confidence in the ‘respectable’ institutions of society is also infecting attitudes to universities. In part this may be due to a lack of understanding as to what universities are for, and what those who enter them should expect to get from them.
Not everyone hoping for a fulfilling life and a successful career needs to go to university. Equally not everyone studying for a degree will need to be doing so for the same reason. Even within Oxford University not every programme will have the same objectives. The academy is now much more diverse than it was in the past. But this needs to be explained and understood much better. It is time to re-establish a social contract between society and its universities. Without it we may find a growing consensus supporting the idea of an education bubble. And we cannot afford that.