The value of higher education

Two things happened this morning. At 7am, I started work writing up a new section of my new first year module on Transatlantic Slaveries. At 8am I read Laura Kennedy’s column in today’s Irish Times. The headline caught my eye: “I have my PhD, but what is the value of a university education?” Full disclosure: I have a PhD, and I value university education. So, I expected a sharp analysis of the challenges facing the higher education landscape, and perhaps some discussion of the ways in which access to education could be improved to make it more attractive to groups of people who have traditionally found themselves excluded from (what we crassly call in the UK) high tariff universities.

women university

This was not what I got. So I did what every good academic does when she reads something she disagrees with on the internet: I had a bit of a rant on Twitter.

Mostly it was the timing. Across the UK and Ireland over the next few weeks, universities are welcoming hundreds of thousands of students, all eager to learn, meet, think, drink, experience. Today, we welcomed a new cohort of first year students in the Humanities at my university – a small university in west London where our student profile is extremely diverse, and where we offer a supportive and encouraging environment to students who often feel they would get lost in a larger institution. I have taught elsewhere, in larger, more elite institutions both Ireland and the UK. I can honestly say some of the smartest students I have taught in 14 years have been here at St Mary’s University.

The core proposition of Kennedy’s article is that university education gives poor value for money in an era when people can research and learn through their own endeavours. That people who want to know about, say, history, can do so by reading the internet. A sort of home-school higher ed. In theory, Kennedy is correct. In practice, she’s missing the point and real value of university education.

University education encourages people to think differently, beyond what they thought was possible, or acceptable. Academic staff and the wonderful people who support tertiary learning, guide and push students towards knowledge, and to reflect on what and how they learn.

The line in the article that made me genuinely sad was this: “We joylessly and fruitlessly engage in the accumulation of education we don’t value or use.” If the writer’s experience of higher education was joyless, then I feel very sorry for her. It is true that some people do find education joyless. I’m sorry for them too, and I suspect that they chose the wrong course. This is a flaw in the system, and one that I would change given half a chance: due to funding priorities, it can be very difficult for somebody to get out of a course that is not for them.

But my sense from talking to students over many years, from all kinds of backgrounds and of all abilities is that the vast majority find their degree an enjoyable, difficult, rewarding experience.

Can we “do” higher education ourselves? Of course. But most people don’t, and don’t want to. If I want to learn how to play tennis, then I can watch youtube clips to learn topspin technique, and I can bang a ball against the wall for hours to practice. But a true understanding of the game can only be gained through playing with other people: this is where you learn tactics, quick responses, new strokes. And hiring a coach? She’ll push you well beyond what you think you’re capable of.

Is higher education too expensive for students? Yes it is, especially in the UK. But it is expensive at the point of deliver because since the turn of the century, governments have decided that the purpose of education is to serve industry. This is one way to see education, but not the only one. Higher education is not synonymous with vocational training, nor should it be. And we accept without question that the GCSE and A-Levels (or for that matter the Junior and Leaving Certificates) are not vocational qualifications. Why should it be assumed that university education be a direct training for industry, easily measured in usefulness? Is it because students pay so much? Well, if so, then the value for money narrative is one that has been constructed by government policy. It is not a measure of inherent value.

Indeed, this attitude has influenced parents and students to think of higher education as any other commodity, something that can be easily evaluated by a “value for money” calculation. Utilitarian approaches undermine the whole experience of higher education. By this measure, nobody should ever study drama, or English literature, or Classics. There are few requirements these days for expert knowledge of Greek mythology.

The real value of higher education is much more difficult to quantify. It lies in the quest, the divergent pathways taken, the development of self-knowledge, the skills to acquire further knowledge, a critical understanding of working with other people, assessing new ideas, challenging them, having the time and space to think and engage critically with information, knowledge and people, and to develop a love of something, a passion for something, even if for only a few years. It is the joy of having time to push your boundaries, and to be guided in doing so. That has value, and it is about time that society and government policy recognized this inherent value.