Recent public debate about the value of a university education in the UK has, so far, been depressingly impoverished. A recent report by the Institute of Fiscal Studies on the salary levels of UK graduates, for instance, led the media to focus on the thinktank’s finding that the salary premium for some arts graduates was insignificant compared with those without higher education qualifications, when set against the burden of maintenance and tuition fee loans.
If that’s the case, current and prospective students are bound to be asking themselves: what is the point of a degree? We must broaden the conversation to understand the deeper and longer-term benefits of higher education both to individuals (beyond the measures of salary and employment “status”) and to society generally.
Numerous studies into the benefits of education have proven that there is so much to gain from being a graduate, aside from financial advantage. Graduates live longer, are healthier and are less likely to engage in crime, especially violent crime. They are also more likely to vote, join political parties, volunteer, work for charities and serve as school governors.
This is a crucial point at a time when the UK higher education sector is being asked its views on what should replace the current Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey. Clearly the current snapshot of what students are doing six months after graduation is woefully inadequate. It doesn’t recognise how a degree might contribute to a portfolio career that evolves over time (as will be the case for many with an arts background), and it categorises jobs in terms of a professional and managerial hierarchy that will soon look antediluvian in the rapidly changing world of work.
Nor is the likely concentration on tax receipts as an index of success much better. It will grade universities according to how much their graduates earn, rather than the extent to which their degree helped them build the kind of career and enjoy the kind of lifestyle they aspire to. Degrees are about choices and aspirations as much as they are about salaries and status.
The graduates of a university such as Bath Spa, which educates painters, actors, musicians, dancers, writers, film-makers and teachers, are driven by so much more than earning potential. Many of our students are pursuing dreams and ambitions and would not measure success by their salary, and certainly not in the narrow time frame that the government wants to measure us by.
However, the North American-style liberal arts model behind the graduate attributes our curriculum is designed to deliver, should not be seen as a problem for the labour market. A contemporary take on that classical understanding of education is gaining ground internationally, with educators and administrators in China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore all rediscovering the importance of critical thinking and creativity.
A university degree is not about acquiring skills specific to a job that might be digitised into oblivion a few years from now; it is not about how much you earn as a graduate, or how quickly you do it. It is about being given the chance to choose and pursue a career that you will find rewarding and fulfilling. It is about making a contribution.
At a moment in our history when the Brexit vote has laid bare the raw divisions and inequalities in our country, including that between areas with high participation in higher education and those without, we need graduates who, in the words of John Kay writing in the Financial Times, can “think critically, judge numbers, compose prose and observe carefully – the capacities that education can and should develop”. Such capacities will serve us well in a future that we can barely imagine, let alone predict.
This is the challenge that universities now face: to develop a discourse that is not grounded in short-termism and instrumentalism but in aspiration and the values that might hold us together rather than force us apart.
Neil Sammells is deputy vice-chancellor and provost at Bath Spa University, and Rob Mears is executive dean in the College of Liberal Arts at the same institution.
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