What are universities for?

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The Independent Online

The Business Secretary has sparked a debate about degree priorities as he called on universities to play a major role in helping the country's economy, and sought to widen access to them. We asked three people their views:

Philip Hensher, Independent columnist

What are universities for? The answer is simple: to teach, and to research. The two core tasks have been taken somewhat for granted until recently. Now, in common with most public endeavours, they are being subjected to measurement and codification. I would say that what worries many people professionally involved in education is that the act of measurement will make what they do much less significant, by forcing the implementation of short-term measures of improvement.

Lord Mandelson was careful yesterday to pay homage to both “civilisation and competitiveness”. But will the Government’s upgrading of qualities called “impact” really encourage the top end of research? Much of the significant work to come out of universities has, historically, emerged through research, which hardly knows, at the beginning, what it is searching for. The great speculative leap in the sciences when data shows a completely unsuspected trend; the summing up of years of reading and study in the arts – these are not going to be encouraged by demands to see what has been achieved in the last 12 months, or, in some cases, the last 10 years.

It is difficult to envisage some of the major public projects of intellectual life being undertaken in the present climate. I have on my shelves the Clarendon edition of Dickens’s letters, the editing and preparation of which took the best part of half a century. One of the major historical projects of recent years has been Jonathan Sumption’s multi-volume history of the Hundred Years War. Mr Sumption is a QC, and it is difficult to think of an institution which would encourage an academic historian to embark on such a project nowadays.

And when it comes to teaching, the entire idea seems to be driven by the false notion of students as consumers. More teaching; more contact hours; more numbers of Firsts. I’m sure it’s what they will get. Whether it is what the true consumers, the students’ ultimate employers, will recognize as added value remains to be seen.

Susan Anderson, the CBI’s director of education and skills policy.

You could be forgiven if you missed the figures released yesterday by Universities UK which showed the economic impact of universities. Some people may be surprised to learn that our universities generate £59bn for the economy and 668,500 jobs, as well as bringing in £3.3bn from international students.

According to UUK estimates, higher education has become a more important source of export revenues than alcoholic drinks or the cultural and media industries and it certainly has the capacity for further rapid growth.

So, universities are good for the economy. But what is the value of a university education for an individual?

The message for students is, overwhelmingly, a positive one. An average graduate will earn an additional £160,000 over their lifetime, compared to those without degrees. The probability of employment is also an argument made compellingly with numbers – Bank of England figures show that over the past decade those with degrees were more likely to get a job than those without. While opportunities in the recession are hard to come by, as we return to growth, graduate jobs will recover.

Business knows the value of a university education. But we do have some concerns.

Even with more and more people going to university, not enough are studying the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects that business wants now, and will increasingly need in the future. Those wavering on whether university is worth it, and which course to study, should know that people with STEM degrees get, on average, higher earnings and a raft of interesting career options.

Prospective students need access to the full facts and figures before deciding on their next step – whether it is university or some form of work-based learning. They need much better information to help them make informed choices – employment rates for each course, drop out numbers and even, controversially, contact hours.

It’s right that students see where their money is going and understand the true value of a degree. On all measures, investing in skills and development should be money well spent.

Professor Alan Smithers is director of the Centre for Education and Employment at Buckingham University

Clearly, from the European agenda, there is a widespread feeling that we need to increase participation and performance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects as a basis for competing in the world economy.

To be blunt, though, the number of physics graduates in the US and over here has not gone up over long periods of time. Employment rates from STEM subject courses does not tend to be especially high and graduates’ lifetime salaries tend to be rather low, possibly because they go on to do not so well paid jobs as researchers at universities.

I think a university education is essentially about enabling people to make as much as they can of this very puzzling gift we have – which is really a brief time on this small planet.

It is puzzling and it ought to be an opportunity for people to engage in studying what helps them to make some sense of it.

In doing so they will develop skills important to the economy but through the study of something they themselves are interested in in depth.

Ben Ferguson, who graduated from the University of Nottingham last year

The problem with asking whether university offers good value for money is that you can’t actually price much of what the package gives you. It’s like judging the quality of a country on its GDP, ignoring happiness and health in the meantime.

Some may argue that, if the average humanities course offers six hours of contact time a week, which works out at £50 a lecture, why pay the price when you can read it all on Wikipedia for free?

I was tempted to leave school at 16 and was spat into higher education at 18 at the end of a treadmill that in hindsight I was glad to be on – even though it led me into debt and my 20s without being

skilled in anything other than making bean salads for 40p. Conversely, friends who got off that treadmill earlier had already been nose to the grindstone for five years by the time I left. Work was everything they expected and it didn’t take them long to buy their first cars.

But it’s not all about earnings versus debts. Being money poor as a student you’re also time rich, you’re afforded the chance to spend it on reading, developing niche interests and doing things simply for the sake of it not because it’ll earn you any money. University for me is therefore about the unknown and having the time to delve into it as far as possible. So, study whatever you find interesting and worry about work once you’ve exhausted all the other options. That way you’ll feel it was worth it when you graduate and realise you have to drudge your way through an unpaid internship in clerical tasks.

Or, as W H Davies put it: “What is this life if full of care/ We have no time to stand and stare?”