The Value of Higher Education
Monday, July 23, 2007.
By Lawna Elayn Tapper
Don’t even tell your parents that this discussion is being held! Can you imagine their disappointment, their sadness? It’s just too modern a debate for anyone over the age of 50. It’s so wrapped up in the very reason that drives people to have children – to make them proud.
It symbolizes all the investments made in their children, that graduation ceremony is their moment of pride. It’s the act that says ‘I did a damn good job with my kid, I crafted someone that’s constructive, forward-looking, someone who will make a positive contribution to society, and no-one can say I was a crap parent!”
So why has so powerful a symbol of success become subject to question? What was it that created its high status in the first place? When we recall those dark and medieval times, when only the privileged knew their letters, there was no need for universities to proliferate – we only needed an Oxford and a Cambridge.
After all, the likes of Newton, Darwin and Shakespeare belonged to a very small class. Now, if this state of affairs doesn’t create a situation of exclusivity, then nothing does. Many centuries had passed before the demands of the masses began to converge with the gestures of wealthy benevolents and push open the doors of these grand institutions.
There is something in the nature of human beings that triggers a need to constantly want to make progress, to achieve a level of greatness and make a difference. It was the status of those that changed the world and people’s perceptions by deeds such as revealing the laws of gravity, the capacity of human beings to reason and the magic of words to entertain, that this domain became the envy and object of aspiration for the masses.
The working class youth in post-war Britain, with its creation of the Welfare State and extension of free education, became the first poor generation to have the opportunity to attend university in the 1950s. Can you imagine their parents swelling with pride as their families and friends looked on at their children partaking with the elite?
Besides this fact, they were given the chance to broaden their minds and become a professional – advancing beyond the limitations of manning conveyor belts in their father’s factories. That’s why degrees were very special! They might even become leaders, rising to the level of the crème de la crème. Even then, just a few generations ago, it was achieved by the few.
As recently as the early 1980s, 18-year-olds were required to cry, sweat and lose sleep trying to achieve two or three A Levels to secure a place at university. And this was way before your grade was based on your performance in the exam and on your course work! In those days your mark was based solely on your exam grade.
So many poorer folk were grateful when, later in that decade, university courses widened. The introduction of Access Courses and the new appreciation and encouragement of ‘mature students,’ whose life experiences came to be seen as tantamount to, or even more enriching than those of any young A Level student came into being. Suddenly, the importance of your experience at school reduced quite dramatically.
It was this development that produced a new and more diverse brand of graduate at the end of the 80s and early 90s. And there were mechanisms put in place to support it. Tuition fees were paid by the government, and you were even given a maintenance grant – money to live off whilst studying.
Future generations just won’t believe that, will they! At this time, degrees were very firmly linked to the aspiration of getting a good job and lessening the impact of racism and sexism riddled within the job market. Working class people who, just 10 years before, would have been destined to do some dead end job in a factory or some basic admin post, could now be seen flying several rungs up the ladder of opportunity.
Were former governments really so generous, or was the fact that the world was moving away from industry and building its service sector? Did they want to support needs for individual development and fulfilment, or provide fodder to meet the demands of the market? Alas, this benevolence was to prove short-lived. It was as though some politician bolted upright in his bed early one morning, sweating from a nightmare that Britain might truly become a meritocracy, where sex and race were no longer barriers to excellence.
By 1992, the conservative government had begun a process that, in just a few years, would kill and bury the grants system so needed by those of ordinary means: student loans to supplement grants were being offered. Marjorie, a final year history student at that time, remembers her response to this measure, back then:
‘The maximum loan we were allowed for the year was £460. I was over the moon when it came in – we all were! I mean, it wasn’t as good an offer as the Access Fund (money you could apply for and not have to repay) but it helped because it was extra money. Grants were great, but never really enough to live off unless you were still at home. Lots of us were mature students, running our own homes, et cetera. We certainly weren’t happy about having to pay it back, but you cross that bridge when you come to it, don’t you!’
Blind gratitude! I guess the temptation not to listen to the warnings of the Socialist Worker Party was too great. Remonstrations of the day told us that the government was dismantling the grants system, and that in just a few years it would be replaced by loans and no longer exist. Did the government begin with such minimal loans and dupe the nation, again, creating the idea that loans would always be manageable? Did they need to quell and discourage the masses from taking on degree courses? One does have to wonder!
To a degree (forgive the pun), they have achieved this. Today, if you want to become a graduate, you need a loan to cover fees for tuition, and a loan to maintain whatever lifestyle it is that you’re familiar with. That’s unless, of course, you have hordes of money put by! One wonders if this was part of the reason that the polytechnics of the early 90s all changed their titles to universities – would people pay all that money to study at an institution that sounded inferior to a university?
It is perhaps to subdue the sense of outrage that the masses should be feeling, that the government has allowed degrees to become so much easier to achieve. Though you have got to suffer the pain of relying on a loan, and graduate owing thousands and thousands of pounds, at least you don’t have to give up working for three years whilst studying. The Open University offers a range of degrees, you can earn an Accredited Degree online, you can work and go to university just once a week – building credits which are ultimately enough to constitute a degree. Just check the internet, the options are endless. There is even one Ashwood University offering a degree in just seven days, and others, fake certificates for the real mercenaries!
It’s really no wonder we’re now having discussions regarding their worth. Anything that proliferates has a cheapness about it. Remember the awe you held for people with mobile phones, DVDs and even MP3 players? Like degrees, they’re two-a-penny now. In this age of mass consumerism, a degree is almost just another commodity.
Today’s world is so different to what it was just a generation ago. Aspirations have changed more dramatically than ever before.
This is the Information Age – wealth seems more accessible than it has ever been, and the need for a university education is no longer the only means to it. We now have the World Wide Web which we can use to satisfy any enquiry we have. You can even use it to sell any attribute you feel you have or access MySpace and advertise your talents.
Then there is Pop Idol, Fame Academy, Big Brother, Apprentice, Dragon’s Den – the television is brimming over with get-fame-and-money-quick programmes. Then there is the entertainment business, particularly in the fields of sports and music – always a good money spinner, if you have the talent! All these means are a lot more glamorous and exciting than the grind of writing long essays and attending solemn lectures.
But, when one thinks about the variety of transferable skills to be gained for the wider world and the market place, perhaps more careful consideration should be given, before knocking the process of acquiring degrees. The need to meet deadlines and observe timelines; the necessity to associate with people from a plethora of races and cultures, to the extent that you may even befriend those formerly thought peculiar or unseemly.
Even the opportunities to engage in discussions about historical human practices are valuable. For some, university is more than just a place where you go to put the rigours of real life and the treadmill on hold for three years. It is where many first meet diversity of all kinds – the salvation of many. It does make one wonder if this is the sort of experience needed to civilize and eradicate (or at least marginalize) the job-cops so rife within Britain’s police force, for instance. Just a thought!
All said and done, it’s not really the worth of a degree that needs to be evaluated. More, it’s about whether or not you feel you will grow as a person for having done one. And that’s just personal. There are particular occupations where to do a degree is virtually the only route into it, doctors: lawyers and teachers, for example.
But if what you want is some semblance of success there is much scope for those who have enough creativity, imagination and self-motivation to drive them to their dreams.
Lawna Elayn Tapper is with Rice 'n' Peas magazine where this piece first appeared.
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