Brenda Gourley: For what it's worth, all students are making a very valuable investment

Vice-Chancellor, The Open University
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The Independent Online

As we encourage an ever larger number of people into higher education, it is argued that the economic return from a person attending university can be computed by calculating their additional earnings from such an education over the course of their lifetime. I would like to discuss some of the assumptions built into this argument:

As we encourage an ever larger number of people into higher education, it is argued that the economic return from a person attending university can be computed by calculating their additional earnings from such an education over the course of their lifetime. I would like to discuss some of the assumptions built into this argument:

A person's average earnings will be greater if they have participated in higher education.

This is probably so - but, as we aim at 50 per cent of the population receiving higher education, this average is bound to drop. It is true that the total earnings of an educated workforce are likely to be higher than the total earnings of an uneducated workforce in any one country, but the averages within the country will change.

The younger one is when one attends university, the better.

This might well be so if young people knew exactly what they wanted to do in their lives and stuck to their original intentions. It is sometimes said that "university is wasted on the young" precisely because they often have neither the experience nor the wisdom to appreciate the opportunity. The focus and motivation of older students, who know exactly what they want to do and waste no time in achieving their goals, ends up costing the taxpayer less and the student less as well.

The longer a person lives, the better the investment.

This is a non-trivial consideration in today's world when people are living longer. Unfortunately a great deal of what one learns in youth becomes obsolete in a world where new knowledge is being generated at such amazing speed. We know that the average person now expects to have five disparate careers during a lifetime and has no way of predicting what these careers will be. The only thing of which we are certain is that lifelong learning opportunities are essential to equip and re-equip as necessary.

Education often produces a 'psychic' income which cannot be computed.

The many thousands of people studying for their own enjoyment as they grow older are likely to be happier and more fulfilled than their less active counterparts. It has been suggested that older people who are engaged in study are likely to be healthier; there often being a correlation between mental and physical health.

There are likely to be people who may not benefit according to economic norms, but for whom education will still be a preferable alternative that should be encouraged and funded.

For example, people serving long-term prison sentences would be better equipped to return to the world outside the prison walls if they had acquired some useful degree; certainly society would be served by them having viable alternatives to their former lives.

At The Open University, as long as we continue to receive adequate funding from government, we don't have to ponder whether these points are universally true or not. We are constantly told by our students that the opportunity to study, completely and unconditionally offered (because of our "openness"), is greatly appreciated and continues to change their lives in countless deeply affecting ways. The fact that this opportunity is available must be the mark of a civilised and humane society. Long may it be so.

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