In defence of a university education

Students, reckons Charley Utton, come in for an awful lot of unfair criticism. And with the 'value' of degrees under the microscope more than ever, he believes it's time to come out in defence of a university education

“So, you want to go to university eh?” asked my Grandad as he settled into his favourite armchair, “I never went to university, and look at all I’ve got!” he said, triumphantly pointing through the window towards the Ford Escort parked on the drive.

I admire my Grandad, and his Ford Escort. He’s worked his entire life and successfully raised the decent, stable family that I fortunately belong to. It nevertheless irritates me when he launches into one of his rants about the futility of my tenure as a student. What irritates me more, though, is when I encounter his same, somewhat misguided views bursting from the lips of friends who left school at 16, and flowing from the fingers of internet revolutionaries.

Over the last couple of years it appears as though there’s been a growth in unjust criticism angled towards students, both in terms of their perceived lifestyles and their choice to go to university in the first place. There are some common arguments in this pattern of disapproval, which are either partially or fundamentally misplaced.

'A degree doesn’t usually earn you a better job, I don’t have a degree and I earn a shedload'

If you’ve got a successful career without ever having gone to university then that’s fantastic, really. Success should be celebrated. However, if you consider the wider context, this statement is not entirely defensible. It is estimated that on average, university graduates will earn around £100,000 more over their lifetimes than those who left school after A-levels. Additionally, the average starting salary for a graduate is now £26,000, which is almost bang on the national average salary for all ages.

'Look at the number of graduates unemployed or in low-end jobs, they could have done that without uni'

Beyond a purely economic perspective on life, and given that the above glosses over contrasts between different degree courses anyway, it’s worth considering the value of an education for education’s sake. It’s important not to lose sight of the foundational purpose of universities, institutions where people can learn about the world and everything inside, outside, above and below it.

Of course a great deal of what a person will learn during their life will come from experiences outside of university, but nowhere else is there such a wealth of information and such a community of inspired individuals who want to share it with each other. The pursuit and exploration of knowledge is what gives many people’s lives meaning and purpose, far beyond ‘getting a good job’ and earning more money than is necessary to live on. Many, though, not all.

To be sure, the number of young people who are unemployed sixmonths or a year after graduating is shocking and definitely a cause for concern. There are myriad factors that contribute to this problem though, and unemployment is rife in pretty much every demographic at present. Time might be better spent arguing against the economic policy of our current government, whose view, arguably, is that unemployment is a necessary evil in the path to efficiency and growth.

'Students are a bunch of drunken louts with no regard for their local surroundings or community'

Some students do no favours for the reputation of the student body. The antics of drinking societies over-enthusiastic student protesters, and regular drunken scenes outside student bars make the above opinion understandable. However, this is without a doubt a case of the few spoiling it for the many.

Sure, some students act obnoxiously after a couple of drinks, but then couldn’t the same be said for people student-age in general? Or even just people in general? Perhaps the problem here is that students are perceived as a collectivity entirely separate from ‘normal’ people, who are all bound to behave in a manner informed not by their individual personalities, but by their choice to study at university instead.

Students are getting a free ride, and cost the government millions. The right to education ends once you finish your A-levels

First and perhaps most obviously, higher education students pay for their education. While there are grants available for some students, the vast majority of UK students will now be paying around £9,000 a year in order to study. Of course this usually comes in the form of a loan, however they start paying that loan back as soon as they’re earning over £21,000 a year; £5,000 under the average graduate starting salary.

Of course the government does spend money on universities, but the amount they spend is completely dwarfed by the amount of money that universities contribute to the economy. A study by Universities UK suggested that in 2008 alone, universities contributed over £33bn to the UK’s GDP.

When I try to explain these things to my Grandad, he usually falls asleep, or cuts me off and introduces the immeasurably more pressing issue of what flavour tobacco he’s going to smoke today. It doesn’t bother me too much; I’ve learnt to accept his ways. It does concern me though seeing others adopt his stance.

A university education is not for everyone, but for those who can draw on its benefits, it is a privilege; one that we should not squander or denigrate. Across the globe our universities are looked upon with awe and envy, yet many inside the UK insist on denying their importance. We mustn’t forget how lucky we are to have them and how valuable their contributions can be to our lives.

Charley is a second year International Relations student at Plymouth University, follow him on Twitter here.

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