I was about two months into my Masters at Birkbeck College and, for the first time, really enjoying studying for the sake of studying. I knew I had to sit exams in a few months and write a dissertation at some point but it didn’t elicit the same feelings of despair as it did when I was at school or during my undergraduate degree. I put it down to my starting the Masters with a few years professional experience under my belt and that I’d chosen a subject I was genuinely interested in – not for its potential to land me a nice job.
The media was awash with debate about university fees being plugged at £9,000 and understandably so. But the reaction of most suggested that everybody was entitled to a university education because that’s what got you a job. I wanted to separate the “university as job centre” from “university as…well…university”.
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My grandmother got married in Bangladesh at the age of 14, and devoted herself to her seven children and lawyer husband. He always encouraged her to read, but it was only after East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971 that she decided to fulfil her dream of studying. When she passed away in 1988, she was midway through her PhD in Bangla literature (the works of Rabindranath Tagore, Kazi Nazrul Islamand Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay were among those she explored). For her, studying at university was simply about the value of learning.
For my parents, who emigrated to the UK in their teens in the mid-70s, university education was viewed as a passport to financial and social security for their children.
Both arguments – that university is about the joy of learning, and that university is a path to a job – have solid foundations. But recent commentary about rising tuition fees has been framed entirely on the basis of the latter argument.
To know whether the fees are fair, it makes sense to understand what is being paid for. A suggestion on Cif last week – to offer a free degree at 25 and 45 – is both arbitrary and impractical in a society that firmly views university as a job preparation centre.
Rather like the way banks are being encouraged to separate their retail and investment banking businesses, I would argue that universities should make a clear distinction between the research and academic element of their existence and the vocational.
Instead of handing out pens and branded bags at pointless careers fairs, employers – the main beneficiaries of good graduates – can do far more practical things. Employers from within industry and across the sectors should come together to form industry-specific consortiums. Universities from across the country would be associated directly with the consortiums.
There are two key innovations here. First, students would apply directly to the consortium, listing their preferences of university (factors such as geographical location and living expenses could feature in their decision-making process) and second, the degrees on offer would be consortium-led but harness the value of the universities collectively. The degrees would have a distinctly professional feel to them, with courses contributing to industry-specific qualifications and skills. The employers would naturally prefer to recruit students from within the consortium and students would not be expected to disclose their university – rather, the knowledge and skills gained on the courses would determine their employability.
Students would pay a “membership fee” to the university, while any further payments for the course would be taken post-employment and after a certain income threshold for a limited number of years. The membership fee itself would have numerous concessions, some means-tested and some linked to involvement in university life – such as clubs, societies or even taking on “employment” within the university in the bars or administrative work of the department. Employers from across the industries – law, accountancy, media, medicine, retail and more – could make direct and focused contributions to higher education.
Separately, universities would focus mainly on their research capabilities, where the ongoing issue of funding for research would prevail. However, they will not be under pressure to show meaningless statistics about student employability or some other arbitrary target of what constitutes a good university. Instead, this part of the university would offer degree courses that are directly designed by the university to reflect their research aims and expertise. This way, students applying would be encouraged to seek the university’s key research qualities and would recognise the academic rigour that would be expected. The money would come from government, industry and research bodies both within and beyond our shores and is likely to go further if spent mainly on academic research.
We are in danger of creating generations that will provide employees but no thinkers or intellectuals who have spent their life asking questions and researching solutions. A separation of the two functions would allow those that view university as a jobcentre to treat is as such, while allowing academics to reclaim its original meaning – universitas magistrorum et scholarium (a community of teachers and scholars) and remove the perception that university is a necessary rite of passage to greater success.