London is in gridlock. If it’s not the snow, it’s the seventeen year olds. Rampant with idealism and keening with injustice, they march against the proposed increase in tuition fees.
And rightly so. £6000 a year is a hefty price to pay for eight hours a week and a library card. Optional hours at that. And I’m pretty sure the library card comes with a £20 admin fee. Ok, ok, some places – mainly Oxford and Cambridge – do actually insist on you doing work and let you talk to a tutor occasionally but these are exceptional and as such are allowed to charge up to £9000.
The action has admittedly been varied, not just in its degree of spontaneity but in its authenticity, legitimacy, and legality. Nevertheless, the kids have a valid point and, not five years out of uni myself, I have largely supported it. But as the protests continue I begin to think about what it is they think they are fighting for and whether their real battle is not against the fees, but against the conviction that a degree is the be all and end all of achievement.
I’ll lay my cards on the table now: I went to university. The job I do now does not require a degree. It requires many other skills, no doubt some of which I gained through higher education, but it doesn’t mean I couldn’t have gained them elsewhere. And it doesn’t mean that someone without a degree couldn’t do my job.
Outside the teenagers hurl eggs at passing royals and celebrity offspring get papped looking tortured and adventuresome. Up in my (distinctly non-ivory) tower, I pause from compiling a pictorial round-up of festive trinkets to wonder just how many of them will end up in jobs they didn’t need a degree for.
Of course, I don’t for a minute suggest that higher education should only be available for those that need it. The value of education goes far beyond what is requisite. It is a source of inspiration, of personal growth, a facilitator of social integration and equality and we should have access to as much of it as possible.
Under New Labour, what was once the distant aspiration of the few became the right of passage for the many. In principle this is fantastic. Everyone who has the ability and desire to study to degree level should have the opportunity to do so. No longer the elitist establishment of old, university is now open to everyone. Or at least anyone prepared to take on the debt.
In many ways, Tony Blair did for higher education what Margaret Thatcher did for home ownership. In opening up the university system, he, like Thatcher, brought about a cultural shift. You only need look at the outrage of first time buyers struggling to get a mortgage to see how ingrained the right to buy has become. Likewise, today’s teenagers don’t see higher education as something they necessarily have to aim for, they see it as just something people do.
In a survey conducted using the foremost social and cultural polling tool of, er, Facebook, I discovered that while a lot of people were able to point to critical thinking skills and specialist knowledge gained from their degrees, the majority of them also admitted that university was ‘what you did’. These are not all kids from privileged backgrounds with a long family tradition of university education. On the contrary, many of the friends I made at uni were the first generation to attend. In the space of about fifteen years, degrees have simply become the ‘next step’.
As a result, many of today’s employers ask for graduates not because they need them but because they can. The degree is just another hoop you have to jump through before you can join the long line of job applicants. While time and money was being poured into creating higher education programmes for all, very little was being spent on doling out proper careers advice. It’s hardly surprising, then, that realising you might not get to do a degree comes as something of a bombshell.
What was once aspiration has been replaced by certainty, complacence, and, finally, by a sense of entitlement. I did my A levels, therefore I deserve to go to uni. Fair enough but do you also deserve to get it for free? My poll revealed that a distinct number of graduates didn’t know what they wanted to do at 18 and three years at university gave them the time and space to figure it out. Again, fair enough but somehow I can’t see too many non-graduates wanting to fund that.
As far as paying for university goes, I don’t pretend to have the answers. I do, however, think the hike in fees will be incredibly damaging unless a workable repayment system can be put in place. And I hope it will force us to examine what we value in terms of skills, knowledge and experience. I don’t think it’s fair that my little sister will have to pay five times what I did but perhaps she will think harder about why she’s going and what she expects to get out of it. Because it sure as hell won’t be financial security and a guaranteed job.