University: liberal learning for life or limiting lucre?

Telegraph columnist Elizabeth Day makes an excellent defence of the true value of a university education (“The lessons of university are for life, not for a future career”).

By Richard Fraser, Editor

Telegraph columnist Elizabeth Day makes an excellent defence of the true value of a university education (“The lessons of university are for life, not for a future career”, 24 January 2018) (pay wall).

Robert Halfon, Chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, told The Times (“Robert Halfon: Pay more for a degree that doesn’t get you into work) (pay wall) that:

“students who take degrees that do not train them for employment should pay higher fees than those who do work-focused courses. Mr Halfon, a former skills minister, “called for discounts for undergraduates taking degrees that will help them work in areas of demand. His comments — which included criticism of elite Russell Group universities for impressive marketing rather than results — could feed into an imminent government review of higher education funding”.

This seems to be the viewpoint of a Wildean cynic who “knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Elizabeth Day commented:

“His argument was that students who learn about sensible, practical things like coding and engineering should be given discounts on tuition fees, whereas namby-pamby dilettantes… reading poetry should pay their own way.”

“If someone wants to do medieval history that’s fine,” Mr Halfon is quoted as saying:

“You still take out your loan and pay it. But all the incentives from government and so on should go to areas the country needs and will bring it most benefit.”

Elizabeth Day responded:

“Speaking as someone who did study medieval history [more on the value of medieval history, The Observer, 28 January 2018] (as well as a lot of other things, including political thought…) My time at university was valuable precisely because I was given the freedom to explore subject areas that interested me, rather than being constrained by a narrow view of what would lead to long-term employability.

“I was able to broaden my horizons both intellectually and socially, and discover who I was as a young adult….”

“You can’t quantify the lessons you learn at university. I’m sure Halfon, if he truly thought about it, would agree. After all, he did a politics degree.”

Vocational and academic: a false dichotomy

In a previous blog post, we have argued that:

“There is often a false dichotomy between academic and vocational education, as many academic subjects come to life when they are applied to occupational specialisms (for example, physics and space travel, biology and medicine, maths and engineering, English and journalism). Some subjects are simultaneously both academic and vocational (such as music, art, design and technology, computing, and modern foreign languages).”

Does it matter if a degree is 'relevant'?

Should education be primarily for its own sake or does it need to be justified ("Does it matter if a degree is 'relevant'?") in terms of its relevance to employment or some other potential economic advantage? 

“John Henry Newman, in The Idea of a University, defended what was then referred to as ‘liberal education’ as the means by which a ‘habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation and wisdom’. He saw this as being the main purpose of a university education.

“This grand vision – that education should be about expanding the horizons of the mind, building the capacity for critical analysis, and enabling students to experience a world beyond their reach – flies in the face of many current political and managerial statements about securing the future of the UK economy, or the need to justify the acquisition of knowledge on the basis of its commercial value.” ("Does the quality of university teaching justify higher fees"?

“As John Stuart Mill said:

‘Education makes a man a more intelligent shoemaker, if that be his occupation, but not by teaching him how to make shoes; it does so by the mental exercise it gives and the habits it impresses’.”

Surely, degrees should be “valued” for “both the joy of learning and real-world relevance”.

Let us know what you think....

Further thoughts

Adult education



Suzanne Moore in The Guardian: "Only the truly ignorant would rank universities according to graduate earnings":

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