Comment: We can't make our students rich, but we can make them more interested in life

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The Independent Online
THE HUNDREDS of thousands of students heading off to university this autumn have been bombarded with reminders that higher education is a good bargain. People with degrees earn - according to calculations - somewhere between 40 and 60 per cent more than those who leave school with only a few GCSEs to their name. Even if they leave university with the obligation to pay the Government pounds 15,000 for that education, it's a bargain. If they had put the money in the bank, they would have received between pounds 500 and pounds 1,000 a year in interest. Invested in themselves, it will pay enormously more.

All of that may well be true, but the reasons may be slightly dubious. If the sceptics are right, what education does is to act as a sieve - allowing employers to reject large numbers of potential employees on the grounds that they have been rejected already - rather than increasing the productivity of those who go through the educational system. This does not mean that education is useless, or that it adds nothing to productivity; it certainly adds whatever the effect is of a certain self-discipline and attentiveness, and an ability to read carefully and write accurately. Other than that, it is not easy to separate out the effects of education in improving people's ability to prosper in the workplace from the effects of education in simply removing from the competition those who cannot, or will not, pay enough attention to acquire the requisite "generalisable skills".

From the point of view of the person who simply wants a leg-up in the market-place, this may not matter much. It is the others who may find that they arrive at university, or at a college of higher education, with no idea why they should study the subject they nominated on their Ucas form. If a 2(i) in just about anything will have just about the same effect on their prospects (it won't, but the impact of different courses is certainly complicated by where they are taken), they may reasonably wonder what on earth they are doing.

It is at that moment that some old-fashioned thoughts about liberal education may come to their aid. To put it crudely, universities do three things for students. The first is vocational: reading law at a university knocks time off the training for jobs in the law and gives students a lot of the knowledge they will later need. The second is research-oriented; if you have the right tastes, interests and intelligence, the five special papers you took on Anglo-Saxon literature will reveal to you and everyone else that your destiny is to become a researcher into the field. Its consequences for worldly success are utterly unpredictable. You may become frightfully rich because you invent something "sexy", such as a cure for Alzheimer's disease; you may become frightfully hard up because the market in Anglo-Saxon linguistics is pretty tight, and the country's one research post has just been given to somebody else. But whichever it is, in general, employability is not a consideration, since your field is so specific.

As to the rest of us, the old arguments in favour of a decent liberal education are decisive. Human beings are, as Heidegger rather portentously observed, "thrown" into the world. We don't choose when and where to be born; we don't choose our parents; and to a great extent we don't choose our characters and inclinations. But we can try to make some sense of who we have turned out to be and whereabouts we fit into the odd pageant of human history. We can try to make ourselves at home in the surroundings that human cultures have constructed over the past several millennia - the scientific, religious and aesthetic surroundings in particular. To do this is not easy, but making some progress with it provides a certain kind of intellectual freedom and a certain kind of intellectual confidence that it is vastly better to possess than not to possess.

Sadly, for both teachers and taught, it is not measured well by success in examinations, though it needs a certain amount of historical knowledge and conceptual competence. But it is what that rather neglected ideal, "education for its own sake", is largely about. And, oddly enough, it is what gets most students through their courses and pulls mature students back into higher education. We are prone to think that instrumental arguments take over when intrinsic arguments give out - that the deep reason for getting an education is that it will make us better people, but that most people will be more moved by the thought that it will make them richer. That may be wrong: instrumental reasons can fail just like the intrinsic ones, and we might more often try saying that although we can't make our students rich, we can do a bit to make them more interested in themselves and their surroundings.

The writer is warden of New College Oxford