Degree proliferation is damaging universities and students, we must preserve academic excellence.

A bad education is worse than no education. Gibbon rightly pointed to this when he described the Emperor Valentinian, who nearly founded the university in the Roman world, as being ‘unenlightened, but uncorrupted, by study’ – Hugh Thomas, An Unfinished History of the World (Quoting Edward Gibbon – The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)

Amongst the most striking paradoxes of the modern world, there is one which poses increasing difficulty. This is the oddity that in many cases being a conservative requires that one favours ideas which are, by contemporary standards, radical. Those who follow Burke’s thinking might come to terms with this by accepting that we must reform in order to conserve, but this is especially true of our universities.

Our once great beacons of intellectual endeavour used to be open only to the top 5-10% of the brightest, and only offered places to study important academic disciplines. Today, around 50% of young people will read a subject at a university. Many will study subjects which, as admirable as they are, do not require academic consideration such as IT. Others who have started on a less useful path might even be conned into reading Gender Studies. This is one course which is peculiar in that it appears to be based not on the desire for and furtherance of knowledge, but instead on convincing young people that whether they identify as a man,woman, goat or tea cosy, it is only because society illegitimately compelled them to do so.

The recently published hoax study ‘The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct’ pretty much puts paid to the idea that academia is at present an institution of which we can be proud. But worse than this, the university experience is now regarded culturally in a way which is completely at odds with the university raison d’etre. Gone are the days in which it might be fairly common for someone to strive to achieve a first in, say, theology or law with a view to using their chosen discipline to support themselves throughout life.

On the contrary, the attraction now for most young people, is not that university sets them up for life, but that it delays it. The three years spent ‘studying’ for a standard degree are much more likely to consist of frequent hangovers, relentless burrowing into an overdraft once the bank of mum and dad has blacklisted you, and scouring Wikipedia for ideas which can be rephrased and claimed as your own.

Those who are currently filling out their UCAS forms are unlikely to state it in such terms, and perhaps they would not even think of it as consciously as all that. The issue is that the general attitude towards further study entails these things. I find it difficult to believe that many 17-18 year olds applying for sport science, creative writing, design studies or business management think of their application forms in the same way which Adam Smith thought of a scholarship to Balliol College. More likely, they will observe that university is the done thing, assume someone will employ them afterwards, and look eagerly forward to the drinking, freshers events and the famously casual attitudes towards sexual encounters.

Not only is this damaging a once proud institution of learning, but it does not appear to bode well economically. This is for a number of reasons. First, despite the conditions such as the £25,000pa threshold for repayments etc. it is a huge amount of debt to be in,particularly if you have no trade, skills or long record of industry experience. The estimations that 40% of these debts will not ever be repaid ought to make one wonder why it is only student debt which doesn’t appear to matter.

On top of this despite it being common knowledge that a huge number of people attend university (at least on paper they attend it) there is still a vague notion that it is something which sets you aside as an intellectual titan. Thus many leave university in the belief that they need not work for less than £20,000 per year… ‘That degree cost me £50,000, I’m not going through that for £15,000 per year!’

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This is a very serious problem, and something which requires national consciousness if we are to drum in to younger generations from now on that a degree is not necessarily a ticket to success. I see more and more people undergoing months of unemployment after their degrees, unable to figure out why wonderful opportunities are not flooding in. Ironically, this often leads to them taking up another pub job whilst they look for their true career. Once this fails, the idea of growing dreadlocks and going travelling becomes all too irresistible.

Oddly enough, my observations have shown that the people who have benefitted most from getting a degree are those who have known what they have wanted to be when they grow up for a long time, and then done the relevant degree, such as IT or Accounting. Whilst I am pleased for the people who take their futures so seriously, it says a lot about the state of our universities, that they no longer specialise in specifically academic disciplines, and they charge the aspiring accountant £50,000 to get a skill which traditionally would have been learned on the job whilst getting paid.

This brings us back to the question, what is it we want to conserve about this state of affairs? Well, it appears that if we think about it, what we should really be looking to conserve is the vision upon which higher education should be built. The pursuit of knowledge by our brightest in the areas which genuinely require an academic approach. To achieve something as conservative as this would appear radical but could be achieved over some period of time by a series of steps.

First, the taxpayer should not be forced to fund gender studies or anything else which is clearly on the curriculum for political rather than academic reasons. If someone is an expert in this, they can still cover it for their thesis from the perspective of their chosen discipline whether that be History or Psychology.

Second, the repayment threshold should be reduced to £15,000 per year. This might make students think more seriously about their chosen subject as they may well have to start paying for it in real terms much sooner than they do at present.

Third, scholarships and bursaries etc. should be offered to the brightest of the bright attending our top Russell Group universities and nobody else. These two points taken together should form a two tier university scheme in which public payment goes to our brightest and their education as has always been the case, and the loans go to those who wish to attend university.

Fourth, more tax breaks and similar incentives should go to businesses who are willing to train up young people, whether this is in IT, bookkeeping or physiotherapy.. Nobody need think that university is the only option for a bright person, and those who are likely to excel in areas which do not require three years and £50,000 of debt should not be compelled to undergo this just to get a foot in the door.

That’s all rather radical. That’s all rather conservative.