Universities provide higher education to people who have completed school and most also act as centres for academic study. Some universities will specialise in a small number of subjects, while the largest can cover almost every field. University education covers both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. The definition of exactly which institutions do and do not have degree-awarding powers varies between countries.
For the purposes of this debate, we will be looking particularly at discouraging non-vocational courses – those which are not directly required for any career. This would include degrees such as Mathematics or History, and exclude those like Medicine. (Note that some subjects, such as Law and Chemical Engineering, have both academic and vocational aspects.) We will imagine a policy along the following lines: cut the amount of funding given to universities by the government, shape the funding criteria to prioritise academia and put the rest of the money into different kinds of vocational training – for example, the University Technical Colleges being set up in Liverpool, UK.
In many Western countries, a large proportion of students who leave school go to university. In the USA, the proportion is typically around 50%, while the UK is slowly increasing from 40%. The long-term trend has been that proportions of people going to university increases – in the UK, this has gone from around 5,000 in 1920, to 100,000 in 1990 to 350,000 in 2011.
University education is the highest level of education which is still reasonably common, and so graduates have a certain status and respect. They produce specialists in many fields, particularly in science-related careers. This makes them a source of social mobility, as people who leave with a good degree are able to break into well-paid careers. As well as this, the fact that they are melting pots for people from multiple backgrounds – and often multiple countries – gives young people what may be their first serious exposure to people who are different from them, and this contributes to tolerance.
However, with the increase in the proportion of young people going to university, degrees are suffering from “inflation,” where they are too common to hold their value. Increasingly, recruiters are looking for skills rather than knowledge, and many companies complain that graduates are not leaving properly prepared for work. As well as being bad for employers, this means that many students are – at least to an extent – wasting their time.
Not everyone should be spending their time in academic study. As well as requiring certain skills, it also requires that the personality of the student be suited to it. They must be capable of manufacturing a sustained interest in a subject, or they will not be able to drag themselves through three or more years of thinking about little else. Some people are, by nature, not that kind of person – they may think in a short-term way or simply not be curious about the world. It also requires a level of intelligence which some people simply don’t have. These people will gain very little from spending time at university. In fact, at some (typically less prestigious) universities, dropout rates can be as high as 20%, meaning students will literally gain nothing.
Many people are putting themselves through university despite it not being right for them. Partial blame for this lies with employers – the large number of graduates means a culture has developed among recruiters of using the presence or absence of a degree as a default filter for applicants; 78% of leading employers filter out anyone with less than a 2:1. We should discourage this. By implementing this policy, we create a different and better way to measure someone’s employability. This will make employers more likely to hire these people, and allow them to follow a path through life better suited to their personality.
Everyone gains something from university, whether quantifiable or not. Simply getting out in to the world and meeting more people – not just minorities and other social groups, but even a wider variety of people within your own social group – is an effective way to learn to think more broadly. Many university students live away from home for the first time, forcing them to do things for themselves and learn how things like personal finance work. It also allows them space to explore themselves and shape their own principles. Non-academic activities within university can also broaden horizons and teach new things such as joining student clubs or societies, such as the debating society. Although university may not be the only way of doing this, it has proven effective over the years, so it’s not true to say non-academic people get absolutely nothing from it.
Despite the problems associated with a degree culture, there are other problems with a non-academic culture. Academia creates things: products and inventions in the case of sciences, and thoughts or ideas in the case of humanities (and even though some people argue against government funding for humanities, almost no-one argues they should not be studied at all). Sustaining this creativity requires at least some new people entering the field, bringing their own insights and approaches. For this to happen, it has to be both respectable and accessible. A government policy against academic courses will cripple this and damage all of us.
The courses which are generally offered at the moment are not serving students well when it comes to providing the skills for employment. 65% of businesses complain of being unable to hire people with the right skills. Increasingly, universities are offering as a selling point the fact that they have extra-curricular courses to teach people business skills, but this is a tacit admission that they are selling people degrees which are not fit for purpose.
Solving this requires us to teach more vocationally. There are schemes underway in many areas to do just that – to give one example, in Maine, USA, a bill has been passed to improve local colleges. Our policy moves these efforts from the fringes to the core of the system: isolate as far as possible the specific things which make good employees and teach those to people. This will help them get jobs more easily, and also ensure that companies are able to operate effectively. The consequences of such a policy would be good all round.
Vocational training would not actually improve training in the skills which employers are concerned about. When people complain about a skills gap, there are two kinds of skills they are worried about: technical ones, in subjects like engineering, and general ones, such as the ability to present or to write clearly. This is something which is already done in university; the best way to learn how to present and write is to practice presenting and writing. Picking a subject, such as history, simply acts as a useful focus for this work.
As long as employers can be sufficiently clear about what it is they want graduates to be capable of, we will be able to incorporate this into existing courses – so in fact, even supposedly non-vocational courses will teach the right skills.
Technical careers like engineering and computer science might indeed benefit from the change, but it makes no sense to shape the whole education system around a limited set of jobs.
Universities cannot take every student who applies. They have to balance the number of applications they get with both the number of teaching staff they have and the time they need for research. In the UK, almost a third of applicants do not get places as it is, and those that do often find they have less contact time with staff than they had expected. Simply put, if you want to have academics doing useful research, you can’t expect them to teach all the time.
If universities have a finite number of places, it makes sense that they should be allocated to the people best suited for them. Currently, universities are so overwhelmed by demand that it isn’t possible for them to test this properly – in most cases, they will take a cursory look at predicted grades, and perhaps an interview with the candidate. Discouraging applicants would lower the stress on admissions departments, making the process more accurate. It will also allow them more leisure to reach out to and target students with the right personality, improving the quality of applications.
Forget all of the discussion as to whether or not academic courses are useful – it’s simply not practical to have everyone do them.
The statement “universities can’t take everyone” is clearly true. But there is a big jump from that to saying “we should stop people from applying,” for two reasons. Firstly, the more obvious conclusion would be to find a way to increase the number of places available, on the grounds that more students means a larger pool of knowledge to draw from and therefore academia will be better. Secondly, for this to have the desired effect we would need the good people to continue to apply, and this is by no means guaranteed – they may simply waltz off into jobs and be lost to academia, in which case we will actually end up worse off.
The limited number of places is a problem, but the proposed solution may make things worse.
The best academic departments are ones run with purely academic aims. Intensive study of a field requires that you are given the resources, support, time and space that you need. Moreover, the best atmosphere is one in which everyone around you shares your love of study. It follows that departments should be allowed to use this as their top priority. This affects undergraduate study in two ways: students must be free to spend time getting to grips with their subject properly, and lecturers must be allowed to teach the things they feel to be most important for their subject.
Neither of these things are possible when you are worrying about jobs. Every subject has certain parts which are more or less relevant to their related careers, but this may not be the same as the parts which are important to academic study of the subject. For example, maths students will invariably be taught Linear Algebra and Group Theory, normally in the first year, but 20% of Mathematics graduates work in Business & Finance, where this is not relevant. If everyone is expected to have one eye on vocational training the academic study will necessarily suffer.
Solving this problem requires that we split vocational and academic study, so that people doing one don’t need to worry about the other. This will improve each of them.
This is a mischaracterisation of how academics work. No serious researcher cuts themselves off from the world to work: collaboration, exchange of ideas and chatting by the water cooler are invaluable. Often, a crucial insight into a problem comes from a casual reference by a colleague. Every report into improving research environments stresses the importance of collaboration, both within a discipline and between disciplines.
Anyone who loves their subject will be happy to have more people studying and sharing ideas with them, even if those people are not quite as committed as they are. If those people then leave to do vocational stuff, they will have at least been a positive presence.
University education is something which a lot of traditionally disadvantaged groups aspire to, for themselves or, more commonly, for their children. Those who are accepted are seen as having “made good,” partly because of the prestige attached to intelligence and partly because of the correlation with higher salaries.
However, this can be hard for them: they may be from lower-income families, where there is no family history of higher education, or they may be from immigrant communities, who have struggled to learn the local language. These children are therefore likely to encounter significant barriers to getting to university. But a permanent lottery-of-birth, where only children of successful people can ever be successful, would not be fair. All children should be helped to build their own futures regardless of their background and broad access to university is necessary for this. It is notable that most of the countries with the most social mobility (Denmark, Norway, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden) are also those with the highest rates of graduation from tertiary education, Canada is the only outlier. This is the reason the government generally gives them extra support so as to make university realistic.
If the government switches focus to vocational courses, it will necessarily lower the amount of support available for these children to get to university. This makes it harder for them to break out of poverty, harder to improve their station in life and harder for them to gain status in their community. This is too valuable to give up.
 This is clearly very inexact, there are countries with very high graduation rates (Iceland being top) that are not on the intergenerational earnings elasticity graph so can’t be compared.
The importance of university to minority groups derives directly from its importance to the rest of the country. It is seen as the key to things like higher-paying jobs for low-income families because it is seen as the key to higher-paying jobs in general. Moreover, this is based on an attitude problem: there are plenty of jobs which do not require degree-level education and which can pay very well at the top end. Under our vocational system, this will all change, and academic study will no longer be the benchmark for success.
Alternatively, even under the current system, what matters to people generally is not the fact of university education alone, it is the careers which it opens up – in particular, stereotypically middle-class careers such as lawyers and bankers. Vocational training would give children just as many opportunities, if not more, as they are not being forced through an academic process of questionable utility first.
People gain much more than a subject from their time at university. Life requires interpersonal skills, self-discipline and general knowledge which must be absorbed over time. There are distinct advantages to picking up these skills before you start work. Firstly, it will make you a more effective worker, whether you are working alone (self-discipline) or with other people (interpersonal skills). Secondly, while working you are likely to have much less time for that sort of thing. Thirdly, you will be to go through on-the-job training more easily if you already know how to study.
All of this can be done very effectively at university. You are allowed time and space to learn planning, budgeting, finding and managing accommodation and a myriad other things which will help you in life. So to say that people don’t gain anything from non-vocational courses is misleading – even if the study doesn’t help them, the life experience does.
None of the above is unique to university. It is possible to find something useful to do practically wherever you are, including university. That doesn’t make it the most important, efficient or effective thing to do – or, indeed, the best place to do it. Anyone on a vocational course will pick up the same general skills and study techniques at least as well.
We agree that there is an advantage to knowing how to study before you start job training, but we don’t think the right answer is to do other, random study first – the skills should ideally be taught at school, or as an introduction to the job training.
University is a great equaliser. One positive side-effect of people going through university is that they are virtually guaranteed to interact with people who are different from them in all sorts of ways – including ethnicity, where minority groups are sometimes better represented than they are in the general population, and international students account for 17% of the university population. The more this mixing happens, the easier it is for people to be tolerant and sensitive to other people. While this isn’t necessarily a problem everywhere, there are still places where these divides cause tension and violence, so the fact that our policy helps to tackle this makes it good.
Vocational courses are rather less likely to be mixed. Certain careers are associated with certain groups, and people studying for that specific career will be drawn largely from that group. For example, the clients of an accountancy course and a construction course are not likely to overlap very much, if at all. Despite whatever merits vocational education may have, government policy is not just about education: it should take into account the wider social good, and so we should be on the side which produces a more tolerant society.
Clearly, more tolerance is a good thing, but putting people through an expensive, three-year course with no career benefit is a sensible way to achieve this. As an example of an alternative, give more support to gap-year programmes and run them in such a way as to get an equivalent mixing. People will learn just as much tolerance in one year as in three, will save time and can even do useful volunteering while they’re on it. This is not mutually exclusive with our policy, which means that you get both benefits.
Academia is important to society. Technical subjects have the obvious outcomes of new inventions, gadgets, medicines etc. – and although these applications are vocational, they are inspired by academic study. Creative arts are also a huge industry in their own right. Humanities are a source of ideas about society, happiness, social policy and cultural understanding, besides simply being interesting. This is all activity which we should encourage.
Emphasising vocational training would damage the image of academia. Quite apart from the fact that reduced government support for the sector is likely to damage it in real terms, it is very likely that if people are being told by the whole government education system that vocational training is more useful for themselves and for society, they will come to regard non-vocational courses with suspicion. Pressure to conform is a real factor, especially for schoolchildren at ages when they are unlikely to see any reason for a principled, pro-academia stance. This means fewer children will go into it and fewer people will tolerate support for it.
Preserving the prestige of non-vocational courses is important, and it requires government policy to take them seriously.
It is entirely consistent to respect academia while insisting it isn’t appropriate for everyone. By way of analogy, consider that few people do serious sport, but almost no-one looks down on those who do (thinking particularly of casual sport rather than professional sport). We are perfectly capable of seeing the value in things which we don’t do ourselves.
It is even plausible that under the new system academics would become an elite cadre of intellectuals whom schoolchildren would aspire to join and the status of academia would be considerably enhanced. There is a well-known saying, “familiarity breeds contempt.” If fewer people were tempted to think of themselves as amateur scientists, amateur historians etc., we might have more respect for the real ones.
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