Measuring value by degrees

By | 22 April 2018

How will the university landscape impact the next generation?

Go on then – what is it worth?  Not your second-hand car or even your best tip for the Grand National. No, your degree. When did you get it and what is it worth?

It’s perhaps not surprising that degrees should have turned into a weird kind of currency. They are valuable things, and not just for the CV. A good degree will enrich your life, in more ways than one, and right from the start; academically, culturally, mentally. And perhaps some of the ways are in fact more valuable than the simply pecuniary benefits which might well come your way because of your degree and might even have been your first reason for wanting a degree. I do not know what Mary Beard earns, but I do know that her brain has been better fed – and for a lot longer – than mine and has developed in ways I can only envy.  David Attenborough? Ditto. I’m not just making a plea for the arts and humanities here, though to do so might be timely, given today’s emphasis on STEM development in all pupils, regardless of talent or interest.

There are times when the world offers a statement of fact – in this case, people with a degree earn more in their lifetimes than those without a degree – and then concludes that the one is a consequence of the other. And if this is true, says the politician, then what we really need to solve the problems of poverty is for more people to get a degree – because that is the golden ticket, isn’t it? Degree, good job, big(ish) salary, nice pension, happy families all round.  Clearly, making degrees more available to more people is the answer to poverty.

You might say, a lot of rich people have a nice car, so if we give everyone a nice car, they too will become rich. Somehow, you just know that’s not how it works. But the notion of everyone getting a degree, no matter where from, or in what subject, or with what content seems to have taken hold, and it may be churlish to carp, and perhaps point out that the very fact they are commonplace may slightly devalue degrees.

So what’s a degree worth if it doesn’t actually lift you to the higher echelons of employment and recompense? Enter the statisticians, who are able to tell us that the best salaries are earned by people with degrees in STEM subjects, medicine and law. So let’s have lots of people with degrees, but you know what?  There will still be a pecking order.

Then you might consider who will pay for these degrees, which used to be government funded, and came with maintenance grants – £360 per annum as I recall for the least well-off students, scaling down according to parents’ earnings. But the tax payer cannot be expected to fund the thousands of students for whom a degree is the new passport to comfort and affluence. American students take out loans and pay them off over their working lives. What a good idea! It looks like a long debt, but it will be worth it, won’t it?

And what could possibly go wrong?  

When the new ‘pay for your degree with a student loan’ system arrived, the original fees were in the region of £3,000 a year, for whatever course a student fancied, from medicine to golf course management, whether it was an arts or science degree.  Now any fool could tell you that a degree involving long hours every day in small classes doing practicals in a laboratory, with masses of equipment and a lab technician in attendance, is going to cost more to deliver than a history or English degree where you would be lucky to see a lecturer five times a week for a single hour at a time and in the company of perhaps 100 other students in one lovely big lecture hall.  

A real student of history, or English literature, or sociology or economics or indeed most of the arts subjects would, in olden times,  actually spend hours in a library, working just as hard as the engineer with the theodolite or the vet with a scalpel, thinking and reading and writing. It was called studying. But these days, all the wisdom of the world is available on the laptop or phone. Google is almost a university in its own right. The British Museum might as well fall down. A student going to his/her local university and living at home will spend more time on his/her computer than in any library, and quite possibly ‘study’ a very tight range of material specifically tailored to the exam. My daughter reports on an English literature degree in which lecturers were heckled with ‘Is this on the exam, sir?’ with books closing in contempt if the answer was ‘No.’ Breadth of study and expecting to be able to handle any question – those days are gone. Today’s utilitarian students, appearing to need a degree more than they want to study anything, want to know enough to make the grade, in a completely ‘Wham, bam, thank you sir,’ kind of way.  

“A good degree will enrich your life, in more ways than one, and right from the start; academically, culturally, mentally.”

With children of my own emerging from the system just in time, I probably missed the magic wand that raised the fees for any degree to £9,000 a year. The hike was surely predictable; if universities were allowed to charge up to that figure, why would any choose to say, ‘No, we’re the cheap place – come to us!’ All fees pitched at the top of the range – and why not? They would, of course, be worth it, because of the splendid jobs which were available to anyone with a degree. Of any kind. From any university – and how many of those have come into being to meet the demand? Is there a market town left in Britain which does not have a university?  A far cry from olden times. In my day, there were only 32 universities in Britain – and even then, a pecking order, with an Oxbridge degree simply out on its own.

Political pressure – ‘Labour will scrap fees!’ – has brought talk of reducing the fees for degrees which, officially, produce a less well-paid working life. Yesterday’s headline, ‘I will make arts degrees cheaper, says new education secretary,’ tells us the way the wind is blowing. Because arts degrees are cheaper to run – fewer lectures to larger numbers, that sounds reasonable. But we risk the assumption that because arts and humanities degrees are cheap to provide, they are also easy to do, and actually not worth studying. No one will want them; they will be downgraded. In our mercenary world, worth less because you pay less for them. And possibly, therefore, worthless.

Which is a dangerous way to go, because the arts and humanities are vital for life beyond utilitarian pragmatism, reminding us that we are creatures of heart and soul as well as muscle and bone.  We can inspire as well as invent, create as well as discover, study as well as learn. 

And as for your degree? Cherish it. It’s probably one of the originals. And the market may shortly flood. 

This article first appeared in IE-Today on 1 April 2018