The regular glossy magazine from my alma mater slithered through the letter-box yesterday. Success stories abound and there is always a feature on distinguished alumni not only from the world of academe but from the playing fields of rugby and cricket, a famous novelist and politicians.
How do you define success if you are a product of a university? Fame or fortune would be acknowledged by most as a success story. A combination of the two would be a rich mixture, attracting envy. But what happens when graduates become bartenders, waiters or typists? Is that a waste of a degree or do we fall back on the platitude that education is a right for all and the job is only one aspect of life?
Most of us know a variation of the old joke about the question that graduates always ask. The economics graduate will ask "how does that benefit the economy?" The science graduate will ask: "Will this experiment benefit the world?" And the arts graduate will ask: "Do you want French fries with your burger, sir?" It is a cruel reflection that success is judged on whether a graduate gets a "decent" job. One can assume that most young people from social class A and B backgrounds will continue to go to university whatever the job prospects because they expect to be in full- time education up to the age of 21.
Those on the margins will have to decide whether to enter an increasingly flexible and insecure job market sooner rather than later or whether university education is worth the large debt burden.
How will future alumni magazines define success in their graduates? At the moment teaching is rarely mentioned. However, Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, thinks that teachers are so important for computer-based learning that he is setting up a teacher resource centre. Teaching is a good example where pay and status have fallen to danger levels in the state system.
However, it is a regrettable fact that while most deserve our praise, the profession does not enjoy the same public sympathy as, say, nursing. It is no coincidence that the academic qualifications of teachers in the best private sector schools are higher than those in the state sector.
Some independent schools boast up to 20 teachers with PhDs. They enjoy higher salaries, smaller class sizes and a better working environment. In further education, pay and conditions encourage a peripatetic nightmare where bit-part academics tot up their contract hours and sign on the dole in vacations. If we are to develop a life-long learning society we need lifelong teaching skills to go with it.
Distance learning and information technology are no substitute for a good teacher, as Bill Gates has said. In their recent book A Class Act, Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard point to the fact that the number of Oxford graduates going into state school teaching has fallen by nearly two-thirds since 1971. It now stands at fewer than 100 a year compared with 900 going into the elite professions.
However, the number of top graduates going into teaching in independent schools has remained steady, with a third of their staff Oxbridge-educated.
It will take at least a decade to reverse that trend with radical action needed on career structure, class size, pay and working environment. I look forward to the day when my former university magazine does a feature on teaching in a state school as a success story. But then as an active trade unionist (definitely not a success story) perhaps that is just a bit of life- long yearning.
Rita Donaghy is a member of the national executive of UNISON and the TUC general council, and the European TUC Executive, and permanent secretary of the Institute of Education student union.