The Emperor's New Clothes (16/12/12)

Need a degree to get on? Not if our most respected experts are anything to go by, says English graduate Matthew Bell

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So. Farewell then, Sir Patrick Moore. You wore a monocle, you gazed at the stars, and Britain was a better place for having you. But hold on – it says here you were a self-taught amateur. What, no degree? No first year gaining a basic understanding of the core theoretical principles before in-depth explorations of key aspects of the universal cosmos? Nope: your mum gave you, aged six, G F Chambers' The Story of the Solar System, and the rest you picked up.

It's one thing to teach yourself crochet, but astrophysics? Sir Patrick was not afraid, after a long squint at the sky, to say: "We just don't know!" But what he did know was that you don't need a degree to know a lot. It's a useful reminder that, as we reported last week, it can now cost £100,000 to graduate.

A university education can be a wonderful thing. And there are professions where it is essential to receive instruction: medicine and nuclear physics spring to mind. But, in other disciplines, do we set too much store by a wax-sealed certificate? An English degree should be three years of reading books. You don't need to take out a mortgage-sized loan to do that.

Elizabeth David reinvented British cooking without setting foot in a polytechnic. Anna Wintour rules fashion with no formal training. Richard Branson, Philip Green and Alan Sugar all made their fortunes after leaving school at 16. The enthusiasm of the hungry amateur is a force to be encouraged, not crushed by course modules.

This is the season of pantomime: how much funnier it is to see a friend or neighbour dressed up as Widow Twankey than a celebrity pro eking out a pension. How much louder we cheer the amateur jockey who wins the Grand National. How much sweeter tastes the home-made cake.

And when it all goes horribly wrong, an amateur is easier to forgive. Just think of the Spanish woman who carried out a botched DIY restoration on the 19th-century fresco in her local church. Her version of the Ecce Homo has drawn tens of thousands of paying visitors to Borja. Could a professional marketing campaign have managed that?

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