The Speaker
Wednesday, 29 May 2024 – 22:05

What is the purpose of university?

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

University is about the pursuit of knowledge first and foremost.

The debate over higher education is fierce. Most recently, disagreements between students and lecturers about in-person teaching caused widespread revolt, with a feeling among students that they were not receiving the education they had paid for. In the academy, questions of a culture war and the perceived political bias of academic leaders had led to much government criticism of them as institutions. 

This comes with a hint of irony given how university dominated the government – and much of Parliament – is. The Conservative party have clearly realised (outside of Partygate) their crucial electorate is those who are not university educated. Such a coalition can include the young: the 50% who do not go to university are, too often, forgotten in political discussion.

An attack against universities in its most recent form comes through the Office for Students (OfS) potentially fining universities that fail to get 60% of their graduates into a professional job or further education. What professional means remains ambiguous at best. Universities might also be shut down if less than 80% of their students fail to pass the first year or below three-quarters graduate.

Naturally, this is a cause of concern for many universities and students. It is never possible to know whether there might be specific problems within a cohort that force them to leave university. While we should all aspire to complete a course we start, that sometimes is not possible for a whole manner of personal reasons.

What worries me more about this latest government rhetoric is the narrow manner in which university is viewed through the lens of a jobcentre. The key marker of great university education, it now seems, is how much you earn immediately after graduation. What a reductive, instrumental manner to view the brilliance that attending a university offers.

On a purely practical basis, we don’t know what professional jobs of the future will involve. The changes and advances in technology – undoubtedly a brilliant thing – mean that the jobs of the future may not currently exist. If that is the case, how can universities possibly deliver content that directly matches the skills which might be required?

Similarly, a specific criticism has been linked to recent graduates struggling to find top quality work. Indeed, the OfS found that, at 25 universities, fewer than 50% of students found professional work within 15 months. This is particularly pertinent to me. I am graduating this summer and hope to enter journalism. I am aware it is not a profession one enters for the money and immediate chance of success. Rather, like so many other sources of employment, it is done for the passion and belief in delivering important news.

The skills one gains for many qualifications often comes from a degree that might not naturally lend itself to any future source of employment. In social sciences and humanities degrees – history, politics, sociology, philosophy – one develops the skill of making an effective argument through essays and seminar debates. These cannot be directed quantified as modules that smoothly lead to a future form of employment.

Instead, those subjects should be what a key core bedrock of university is about: celebrating the pursuit and teaching of knowledge for its own sake. Finding out knowledge from history, interpreting this in different ways and presenting the information to students is a worthwhile and valuable end in itself. Similarly, for students, the opportunity to spend three years simply learning about a subject and being taught by tutors at the highest level is an immense privilege.

Rather, important though a degree is, the process of going to university is about far more than just learning. Leaving home for the first time, which so many were prevented from doing during the different lockdowns, is an immense step on the journey to independence and adulthood. Parents and students alike don’t forget that first time driving away, leaving you behind to embrace the world of independence. Undoubtedly, this requires developing as a person, becoming more independent and dealing with challenges.

Alongside this is the chance to meet new people – potentially friends for life – on both the same course and across the university. There are many experiences to enjoy, both academic and for pleasure. At campus universities like Warwick in particular, where I study, a big onus is placed on student societies, which can just about cover everything. These, by their very nature, involve the chance to hear from speakers which might not otherwise be possible.

The university experience is not one that should be given up lightly. Even though students are paying for their own tuition, a progressive policy as you don’t start repaying until you earn about a certain salary, they should not feel warned off from university simply because of concerns about attaining a professional job. While courses like medicine and dentistry naturally link to a future source of employment, the picture is less clear for social science subjects. But surely the brilliant thing about university is the pursuit of knowledge and personal development that go far beyond a degree. You can’t put a price on that.

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