Letter to Editor: On university and jobs

Your Say / Sat 30th Oct 2021 at 10:59am

Dear Editor,

MP Robert Halfon’s assertion that universities should focus only on helping students secure jobs left me scratching my head.

Young people across Harlow have recently moved out of their parents’ homes and into student accommodation; many of them are the first to attend university in their families. Some will aspire to work for a global corporate company — perhaps even to be a leader at one, others to advance a meaningful social cause; still, others simply to have a better life than their parents. 

In a competitive job market, universities undoubtedly have a crucial role in equipping young people with the necessary skills to improve their job prospects. However, not all university courses should be about securing jobs. 

There’s great value in a broad education that develops understanding and creativity. Studying Philosophy, History or English literature, for example, is essential because they help us think critically, weigh the evidence and make decisions. They also teach us about the world we live in and our own culture, and other cultures and their values and contributions to the world, which can, in fact, serve practical purposes too: it can help us make more intelligent, differentiated and thoughtful decisions in politics, economics and business.

Contrary to popular opinion, Arts and humanities subjects are not intellectual, ivory-tower stuff; they transform the quality of the thinking we do every day and can open doors to a multi-faceted career and set the foundations for world-changing businesses.

A little research reveals that several leading CEOs studied philosophy, including Flickr co-founder and Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield (who has both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in the subject), LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman (a philosophy graduate of Oxford University) and former HP CEO Carly Fiorina (who studied medieval history and philosophy at Stanford University).

It’s a shame that Mr Halfon does not seem to appreciate the immeasurable value that an arts degree can offer beyond preparing graduates for work in museums and publishing companies.


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3 Comments for Letter to Editor: On university and jobs:

James Humphreys
2021-10-31 10:04:01

I agree with you, the arts is important and many with say a classics degree from Cambridge have gone on to do great things for the very reasons you state. But to add colour and context I think this problem is over 20 years old. Since the social policy of encouraging more people to go to university came in, in order to power a high income economy, it has somewhat got out of control and became a problem. Solution one was to introduce tuition fees to stem the numbers slightly. But all this has done is lead to a general devaluation of degrees. It’s a fact there are too many people going to university than there are jobs for them to go into at the level expected. With the funding now coming from students, it’s short term money making by universities rather than long term economic and social prospects. Add on top of that the fact nobody can now fix it as it’s too big a problem, much like a number of other well intended political interventions. Then for Mr Halfon, he is a champion of apprenticeships, this of course diverts some people from doing a pointless degree into vocational courses with skills and jobs at the end. I can see where he is coming from and it was needed, but yes attacking universities as a whole is a step too far. While I agree with many of the points in this letter, I can’t help but feel the anger is directed in the wrong place or direction. The source of all this started way back in the 90s and early 2000s (I should know as one of the first few paying university students)…and both labour and conservatives haven’t had the guts to fix it, nor do the universities care as there’s money to be made. At least Mr Halfon is trying to find some solution, even if it doesn’t work on the whole for everyone and adds to the devaluing of degrees, but he is right in one thing, more people with degrees is not the answer if the jobs aren’t there.

Jake Shepherd
2021-10-31 21:38:21

Couldn't agree more - well said!

2021-11-11 12:50:26

The university education system has been monetized, fees with rising interests on loans and there's a profit feeding frenzy on student accommodation with University towns being architecturally trashed by great blots of student accommodation buildings being thrown up. The university system is fundamentally flawed for a number of reasons. There is the mistaken idea that learning and excellence is limited in to subjects only offered at traditional universities. Many of those who teach subjects of study at university almost pride themselves on these subjects being distanced from skills. However, we seem to have forgotten that many of our top people years ago came through the HNC and HND routes through industry an example being scientists and engineers that established the uk as once the world leader into space and in communications satellites. This one of the reasons that the uk has what is described as a skills gap. It's actually a learning gap, largely in the STEaM subjects, caused by the strange attitudes in this country to Engineering and technology. There's an artificial gap between HE and FE the consequences of which is made worse by a process that made it more attractive for industry to buy in expertise from around the world rather than train our own. There's also this strange idea that somehow learning is better if students go and live in other parts of the country to learn what could be learned in home towns by a combination of online learning, short residential courses and by attending, what could be implemented by an extension of present proposals, learning for life centres. The idea of upping sticks to attend a university is equivalent and makes as little sense as attending a finishing school. The Open University is one of the most successful universities in the World, yet we tend to down play it in the UK, probably because there's more profit in preserving the status quo. Certainly anyone who has used the learning resources from the OU will testify they are excellent. COVID did actually show that large parts of courses can be taught online and our experience is that tutorials can be more effective and more 1:1 attention can be given. Admittedly, it happened in an emergency situation but if unversities actually worked on producing quality materials then it has been proven to work on a large scale by institutions like MIT who offer MOOCs for free. The internet has provided us with the opportunity to make our education system an Open Access System fit for the 21st century, that spreads through schools, HE, FE and for life, students being able to access learning from almost any course from any College or University from around the country from their home towns, using local centres such as Colleges, schools and universities, like the OU, using modular units of study so that students from can build credits towards qualified status for whatever career or purely academic interests or occupations they choose. It would not stop those who wish to leave hometowns and incur the accommodation costs but it would help stem the detrimental effects of the drain of skilled and talented students from their home towns both on the towns and families. Of course, there are some facilities that are unique in terms of equipment, it's not easy to study nuclear physics without a suitable laboratory and so there are elements of and sometimes whole courses where being there is inevitable but whilst we have a system based on class, restricted access and wealth that has it's feet in the 18th Century it's going to deny opportunity for people of all ages and the country will be the worse for it. Education is the future lifeblood of the country and like the nhs should be free at the point of delivery.

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