A question of degree

Is higher education really worth the debt and pain, asks Chris Sheppardson, CEO at EP Innovates

The somewhat contentious debate over the value of undertaking a university degree is beginning to increase in volume as a number of fair questions are being raised. Of course, in days gone by, the draw of a credible university degree – and the life experience that goes with it – was regularly viewed as being of real value to a young person starting out in life. This was not just because of the level of education that it indicated for the individual, but because it highlighted those who had gone through a transitional period from living in the family home to becoming self-sufficient and independent, not to mention building new friendships and learning about life.

The golden era

From a nostalgic perspective, university was always considered a golden period in a young person’s life, one that taught them resilience, individuality and responsibility. Can we honestly say that this is true today? Are we really helping young people to grow, develop and prosper as individuals by saddling them with a massive £45,000 debt, alongside an arguably archaic structure that is, quite frankly, becoming increasingly questionable in terms of value?

When university fees were first introduced, the original intention was that they would range from £6,000 to £9,000 per year, with only the premium universities charging the top end of that bracket. The reality is that every university is charging the top end of the fee spectrum and, as such, are positioning themselves at a premium level.

On the flip side, how is it possible that two Vice-Chancellors could be publicly outed for earning over £400,000 in salary (double that of the Prime Minister)? How could the system allow for such reward?

“How can young people place real value on a structure that continues to take, but arguably doesn’t deliver?”

A broken system

Where does responsibility lie with respected educationalists today? How could there be an official strike by tutors during final exams? There may be a fair case for some of these scenarios but, given the above, it does seem completely out of sync with how the general public view the landscape. Maybe a tutors’ strike is a valid action, but – at a crucial time for students – what message does it send about taking responsibility and putting students’ education first? Let’s not forget that students will pay for the service, too. Many professors feel more pressure to place research work and publications before student education, thanks to funding, indicating that the system is broken.

What this all leads to are three rather tough questions:

 – Is obtaining a degree worth the long-term debt and pain? The university system and the grants process worked for many years (yes, the cost increased as the Government sought to increase the number of educated people in the country). It’s all very admirable, of course, but not if the system fails the young

 – Does the whole structure or system really place the student and their education first? Tony Blair’s mantra of “education, education, education” won many hearts but, 20 years on, it isn’t a pretty picture

 – How has all the change over the last twenty years in education impacted on behaviours amongst those that placed their trust in educating the young? I would suggest that levels of respect are falling, as are behaviours

“University was always considered a golden period in a young person’s life, one that taught them resilience, individuality and responsibility. Can we honestly say that this is true today?”

Students are stepping up

These questions might be harsh but they are certainly worth asking, because the younger generation are being unfairly treated. As an advanced society we should place education of the young as a primary goal, but need to do so with care and real social responsibility. We should absolutely show courtesy for our educationalists but they should also place students and their education first, without compromise. Sounds idealistic? Perhaps, but, as a progressive economy, this is what should be expected – society should be about setting new standards and benchmarks, not just increased reward and increasingly questionable behaviour.

The expectation and bar for education today has to rise, and it is interesting to note that students are stepping up and beginning to ask whether universities are actually delivering what has been promised and whether they are getting value for money. It’s possible that the whole framework for university and degrees could fall down in future years because the young will eventually opt out. They will instead opt to find new, more effective ways to learn and grow, ways that don’t riddle them with a mountain of debt.

Young talent deserves better

Today’s society should expect us to care more about the development of talent than entertaining discussions over increasing debt, strikes and the salary levels of Vice-Chancellors.

University should indeed be a golden era in a person’s life – not the beginning of a life of debt and stress. Blair’s mantra was right, and never suggested “education, education, eduation, plus debt, debt, debt”.

Frankly, we need to do better and more for young talent today. How can young people place real value on a structure that continues to take, but arguably doesn’t deliver? Talent is the future and we must take steps to address the issues now.




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