Paul Vallely: What is the point of education?

You visit a modern university and discover it to be an intellectual battery farm

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The chap who runs our local corner shop has built up a thriving business. But he does not want to hand it on to his son. No, he wants Patel junior to become an accountant or doctor or somesuch. He wants him to be seen to have "done well".

The chap who runs our local corner shop has built up a thriving business. But he does not want to hand it on to his son. No, he wants Patel junior to become an accountant or doctor or somesuch. He wants him to be seen to have "done well".

So what will happen to the corner shop when the contemporary wave of hostility against economic migrants ensures that a new generation of immigrants will not be there to staff our shops, buses and hospitals and generally take on the lower-rank of economic activity – which the educated majority of the population feel is beneath them and which seems too much like hard work to many in the benefits class?

Our local Asian community is only a sharp-focused microcosm of a much wider phenomenon. Go to dinner amongst the middle classes anywhere from Chelsea to Cheadle nowadays and you can bet that when the subjects of house prices and school catchment areas are exhausted, you will catch a little lament about how tricky it is to find a cleaner these days. Once it used to be a decent cleaner. Now it's pretty much a cleaner of any description. Details and phone numbers will be traded, with only with the quid pro quo of contact details for a good tutor to do a bit of evening coaching even where the school catchment area is a most desirable one.

Which presumably is why Ruth Lea, of the Institute of Directors, was holding forth on the radio yesterday about the nation's lack of plumbers. By contrast, she said, we are grotesquely oversupplied with media studies graduates. The solution is to cut the number going to university to just 15 per cent as against the Government's avowed aim of getting half all school pupils to university by 2010. The balance between academic qualifications and vocational training is, she says, "badly out of kilter".

There is an imagination-shaped hole at the centre of all this. Leave aside the snobbery implicit in the remarks. Leave aside the fact that media studies kids have a better track record than most other categories of graduate of landing a job. Leave aside the argument that the market will eventually sort out the media studies/plumbing imbalance once young people realise where the available jobs lie – for this surely must be an area where the laws of market failure that plague vocationally driven groups such as nurses and teachers do not apply. And leave aside the truth that, as Margaret Hodge, the minister for higher education, has pointed out, it is forecast that as much as 80 per cent of new jobs over the next decade will require graduate-level skills.

For all that enters into the utilitarian arena whose rules of engagement cause such a grave distortion in the thinking on education in the first place. Instead let us return to the "first principles" question of what education is for.

At the risk of being dismissed as a hopeless romantic it is not about getting a better job but about becoming a better person, in the sense of being a more fulfilled one, even if nowadays we would want to strip a word like "better" of its moral content.

It is deeply unfashionable to say so in our consumer age, but it needs sometimes to be reiterated that the identity that we call our "self" is something that is learnt, or evolved, and not a given fixed system of needs and desires. Education, therefore, is not about pressing the child or adolescent into a pseudo adult role as early as possible. It is the place in which we become the person we are becoming, and ensure that we do so in a way that fulfils our potential.

It is easy to forget this when you visit a modern university and discover it to be an intellectual battery farm where youngsters who – freed from the pressure of contributing to the household economy, as would have been their lot in the pre-modern era – have subjected themselves to a self-imposed regime of job-orientated endeavour.

Yet the flattened landscape of consumer choice is not the only vista that stretches before them. For those who can escape the treadmill of exam-focussed slog, enlivened only by the low relief of the daytime soaps, there is still the option of three years of gloriously indulgent idling, intellectual diversion and time to discover that 21st-century models of achievement and consumption can be augmented, or even replaced, by those of enjoyment, participation and solidarity. If only university, like youth itself, were not just wasted on the young.

And if all this is true for some intellectual minority – as it was in the days when I was at university – then why should it not be so for the 50 per cent of the population the Government hopes to get into higher education by the end of the decade? And for an even greater percentage in the years after that?

"A degree is not always a road to a golden career," says Ruth Lea. "On the contrary, it can damage job prospects. Students must be told this fundamental truth."

Indeed they must. But they must also be allowed to discover the unalloyed pleasures that education can bring – one part of which is to give them the independence of mind to discount the pronouncements of the Institute of Directors and the impoverished view of the world on which they rest. If students can do that, then the problem of finding a job afterwards will shrink into an appropriate perspective.

p.vallely@independent.co.uk

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