I learned, many years ago, that if I block my nose and keep my mouth shut, I can’t hum. It will, no doubt, come as no great surprise to anyone reading this, that I have never found that particular piece of knowledge to be of significantly positive value to my broad well-being in life. Of course, that knowledge is not a bad thing in itself. It’s a simple physical reality and it can’t do any harm to know it. But it isn’t much use. And isn’t useless knowledge just that; useless?
In the light of that, shouldn’t we be asking how many of our young people are today paying huge sums of money and incurring correspondingly huge, life limiting debts for the acquisition of degrees that will be of little or no use to them for their future?
Far too many university courses see the hapless student emerging from their graduation, triumphantly clutching a degree, but hopelessly untrained for anything, lacking any practical skills, and tens of thousands of pounds in debt.
There are two main types of course that are prominent in this situation. One is the ‘Mickey Mouse non-course’. Ten years ago the Taxpayers’ Alliance referred to these as ‘university degrees that lend the respectability of scholarly qualifications to non-academic courses’. It gave examples such as ‘Outdoor Adventure with Philosophy’, and ‘Aromatherapy and Therapeutic bodywork’.
The second is the ‘Humanities Subjects’ degree. By their very nature these degrees have limited practical applications. They are academic subjects. Academic can be defined as meaning either ‘relating to education and scholarship’ or ‘not of practical relevance; of only theoretical interest’. Either definition suggests limited practical application beyond teaching others.
Suffice it to say that, whilst a profound knowledge of say history can have real benefits, I find it hard to believe that either small businesses or the captains of industry and commerce are crying out to employ someone with a PhD in Gender Studies or The History of Feminism.
So, how did this disgraceful situation come about?
As with most fiascos, the original damage has mainly been done by politicians. The cry “education, education, education” from successive prime ministers, appears to have been presumed by some voters to herald change and improvement.
A plethora of new initiatives and schemes has been forthcoming. That the vast majority of them seem to represent a constant drive to replace what ‘worked’ with what ‘sounds good’, and that rarely has any betterment been the result, has never seemed to bother the establishment. Indeed, their main concern appears to have been that the public should be unaware of the damage being done.
Surreptitiously, higher grades would have to be made easier to obtain, and university entry would have to be made available on substantially reduced grades. All this was designed to mislead impressionable young people to invest in an ‘academic’ course which was, at best, not their prime option and, at worst, an expensive folly which completely failed to recognise any alternative individual talents, gifts, strengths and aptitudes they might possess.
Young people and parents would have to be grossly misled as to the benefits of a university education. They would need to be told the unforgivable untruth that degree holders would automatically earn much higher salaries as a result of their qualification. It was also subliminally but seductively implied that they would achieve the nirvana of being ‘educated’.
People like Tony Blair assured them that 50% of young people going to university would ensure that the UK would have a highly skilled, graduate workforce that would enjoy their pick of copious, imaginary, highly paid jobs. The statistical and economic lunacy of that proposition is obvious.
Of course, the number of universities would have to be dramatically increased. Polytechnic Colleges would be upgraded, and various other minor technical and training colleges and assorted teaching establishments would be swept up and grouped together into new ‘universities’.
In 1960, with a population of 52 million, there were twenty-two universities in the United Kingdom. At that time, about 5% of eighteen year olds would attend one of them. Since that time the number of universities has increased by a factor of about six. The number of 18 year olds attending has increased to over 30%.
In 1960 the city of Bath had no University. Now, with a population of around 100,000, it has two! And newspaper reports inform us that the vice chancellor of Bath University, apparently the highest-paid in the country, has enjoyed a salary package of approximately £468,000 per annum. Also, that the vice chancellor of Bath Spa University, one of the smallest in the country, has been paid a package of approximately £800,000 in her final year in the job.
So the university gravy train grows and flourishes. A report in The Times in 2016 informed us that ‘Universities were borrowing £3bn for a new boom’. Multi-million pound loans were being borrowed from, amongst others, the European Investment Bank (my word, what a surprise!). The universities, of course, tell us that they are ‘centres of excellence’. Some are. Many are not.
Surely, we need urgently to stop this disgraceful exploitation of our young people. We need to rapidly reduce the number of universities and increase the number of training centres for practical and applied skills. We certainly do not need any more comfortable and secure hubs of academic and political activism.
While we’re at it, I suggest we promptly expel the troublesome minority of students who trample so noisily, violently and ignorantly on the freedoms and rights of others. They are short term guests yet they aggressively and disrespectfully demand idiotic, historic, economic, social and political changes in long-established institutions, some centuries old. Their bigotries know no bounds. Kick them out. There are plenty, more deserving, waiting to take their place.
We need students who are taught how to think, not what to think; and who emerge informed, prepared and trained for the workplace.