It's for life, not work

October 27, 2000

Contrary to what the head of Ofsted says, the value of a degree extends far beyond mere utility, argues Alannah Tomkins

To paraphrase the words of an educational commentator: the education of the people should be limited to the requirements of their occupations and should not extend beyond what relates to their workI we all tend to overvalue our qualifications and people possessing (a degree) expect, not unjustly, to be employed where it will be of useI most will look upon alternative forms of work with aversion.

If the prose sounds familiar, that is because it is highly redolent of Chris Woodhead's recently published opinions on the dangers of "educating people to a position where they are going to be disappointed" ( THES , September 15). Nonetheless, these are not the sentiments of the head of Ofsted; they are based on extracts from the vitriolic criticism hurled at charity schools by Bernard Mandeville in 1723 (in Fable of the Bees ).

Mandeville was aghast at the idea of teaching "the generality" how to read and write. Woodhead's opposition to the expansion of higher education was not on these grounds, but the arguments are depressingly similar. Where Mandeville warned that labourers who could read would be unfit for "downright labour", so Woodhead wonders whether "we need" 40 per cent to 50 per cent of the population with a degree.

Both men have been guilty of the same arrogance, the presumption that they know best how to ensure the future prosperity of the nation. Neither has had the wit to ask themselves about the benefits of education to individuals, and while Mandeville may be forgiven for failing to anticipate the vital importance of transferable skills, the same charity cannot be extended to Woodhead.

Graduates may leave university and immediately enter employment for which their degree subject has prepared them, but they are just as likely to rely on their degrees for quite different benefits. Study of biology may prepare a graduate for medicine or motherhood; a politics graduate may never run for election but will be fully equipped to assume the role of an informed voter; presumably some poor graduates will find themselves administering Ofsted (but then perhaps they will enjoy fulfilling personal lives to make up for it). A degree is for life, not just for work.

Woodhead presumably sees himself as a good judge of what may be best for the nation's education, and is happy to deprive a whole cohort of people of the chance to study for a degree. Would he be so keen to adjudicate in individual cases, to tell particular applicants that they will not be allowed to study for a degree? No - he would rather delegate that task to the universities. Instead, he predicts that expansion will regrettably lead to a decline in standards, and he sits back and waits to become chief representative of the "leading quality watchdog of post-16 education", where he will doubtless discover the means to prove himself right.

My polemic ignores the issue of appropriate resourcing for expansion. As a lecturer in a hard-pressed but resilient history department, I am all too aware of the damage inflicted by "efficiency gains". The sector has gone way beyond lean and mean, it is now well into emaciation. But I can never forget the perspective of the student applicant, the candidate on the margins, whose interests would be crushed by Woodhead's utilitarianism.

Education should be accessible to all who desire it for their own sense of personal achievement, irrespective of the prospects for immediate payback in the world of work. Expansion, along with that even hotter potato, proper student funding, is surely the only way to achieve social inclusion.

No matter what the century, there are always people anxious to question the utility of any extension of access to education. They profess to be puzzled by a desire to extend knowledge and understanding, foretelling everything from disappointment to disaster if their words are not heeded. Mandeville was proved wrong by the passage of time. Will Woodhead have the humility to admit that there might just be advantages to the expansion of higher education that he cannot yet appreciate?

Alannah Tomkins is a lecturer in history at Keele University.

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