Recently, I was fortunate to enjoy a short break away on holiday. I judiciously delegated key tasks, disabled my work email, resisted the temptation to keep an eye on social media and actually managed a few days in blissful isolation, away from the daily challenges and complications of life in university leadership.
But of course, there is never total escape, and in the airport departure lounge on my way home I got chatting to a couple also waiting for their return flight to the UK.
We exchanged pleasantries about our respective holidays and where home was and then moved on to the nitty-gritty of job roles. “So…what do you do?” they asked. And then the flow of questions started. I thought I answered the first few fairly well – the usual cluster of fact-finding queries around my role, about the university where I worked, about the spread of courses we offered, numbers of students and so on. All straightforward.
And then the question I wasn’t prepared for but really should have been. In fact, not so much a question but more a statement along the lines of: “Of course, too many people go to university now, don’t they? I mean, what is the point?”
So, with one eye on the departure board, I found myself launching into a robust defence of UK higher education. In a few minutes I managed to cover the benefits of higher education for the individual student, for the nation and for global humanity. I tried to paint the bigger picture of education as a public good and the need to provide opportunities to study at a higher level for those individuals who may have never been offered those opportunities before – an important part of the purpose of the university where I work. I thought that I did a good job, but I could tell that the couple were not convinced.
Quite rightly, they were concerned with the level of tuition fees, student living costs and the prospects of employment upon graduation. They focused on student debt (and yes, I did explain the concept of a loan repayable only when earnings reached a certain threshold as is the case in the UK) and the perceived irrelevancy of some degree subjects based on the level of unemployed graduates from those areas.
Of course, many of the points made to me contained an element of truth, but overall the whole exchange prompted me to reflect not on the questions of funding or student employability but on how well we are doing as a higher education sector in relation to public engagement. My own view (based not only on the airport departure lounge exchange but also on countless other similar discussions with others) is that perhaps we need to go back to basics as a sector in how we connect with the general public and demonstrate the benefits of higher education.
Now, I know that some fantastic work goes on in relation to public engagement with research at universities across the UK; the areas of medicine, technology and engineering are obvious examples, and there are many, many more. There are also many significant high-impact industry-university partnerships that exemplify valuable and meaningful public engagement. But really, how relevant does this level of engagement feel to members of the public who, rightly or wrongly, have in their own mind defined higher education as an expensive and self-indulgent “dalliance”, of no relevance to many (who don’t even deserve a higher education), and with little prospect of employment afterwards?
Therefore, I suggest that we have some work to do to realign public perception of higher education as worthwhile, valuable and impactful for anyone who chooses to access it. And in my opinion, the “back to basics” campaign should start with a simple tag line: Education Is Never Wasted. By using this as our starting point, we have a chance to free up and realign public views about the benefits of a higher education.
A coordinated campaign could see individual universities identifying case studies of students who embody the tag line; powerful stories from across the whole sector, with universities from different mission groups standing shoulder to shoulder demonstrating relevance and impact across the whole spectrum of higher education provision. I would like to see an energetic and relevant campaign that focuses on how learning new things at the higher education level challenges you, engages you and provides the environment to develop critical skills alongside subject knowledge – skills of communication, analysis, resilience, commitment, working together, overcoming challenges…the list goes on – skills that will be used time and again through life and never, ever wasted.
We should try to avoid sliding into an instrumental and compartmentalised view of “academic” versus “vocational” education. Rather, we should recognise and celebrate that education at any level is complex, multifaceted and impactful. We should present to the public a more rounded view of how practical, intellectual and interpersonal skills make up a worthwhile and holistic view of higher education.
And finally, please can we stop the obsession with “meritocracy”? A measure of so-called talent or ability defined on entry into any level of education will serve only to limit achievement and present a barrier to those who just need to be given a chance to be supported to engage with the opportunities presented to them.
I love learning; it is a precious gift. Many years of both being educated and being an educator have led me to appreciate first-hand the transformative power that opportunities to engage with learning at any level can have for an individual, as well as for groups, regions, the nation and for humanity in general. But I am not sure that some members of the general public share this view.
So let’s get back to basics in helping individual citizens, localities and the nation to understand the value of a higher education.
Claire Taylor is deputy vice-chancellor of Wrexham Glyndŵr University.
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