Terence Blacker: What's the point of going to university now?

A job qualification available in three years' time may not be the most powerful selling point
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The moment of the year is approaching when thousands of people in their late teens will be entering a new phase of their lives. For many, it will be a serious disappointment. They will miss home. A nagging sense of futility will assail them. They will acquire little new knowledge, except into the nature of failure, at which they may become precociously expert. Then they will return home, another statistic in the league of first-year drop-outs from Britain's universities.

Of the blizzard of statistics that herald the approach of the new academic year, perhaps the saddest is that an estimated 71,000 undergraduates, one in four who have enrolled for university, will fail to make it to the end of their first year. Apart from reflecting a serious waste of public resources, the figures represent months of wasted time and a process of demoralisation for those about to become adult.

Something very odd is happening here. No British government of modern times has seemed to be more committed to the idea that a fairer, more productive society can only be created through educational equality. The old-fashioned concept that a university existed for the pursuit of knowledge, that it provided its students with a rounded intellectual and personal education, was deemed in official circles to be elitist and socially exclusive.

"I don't mind there being a few medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them," Charles Clarke, Education Secretary at the time, was reported to have told a group of academics in 2003. Universities should have "a clear usefulness". Following up the point, someone from the Department for Education and Skills explained that universities should be "giving graduates the skills needed in the local and national economies".

There is a connection between this grimly utilitarian view of tertiary education, which sees knowledge solely as a means to gaining a qualification, and the high levels of dissatisfaction among today's undergraduates. If the strongest argument for spending three years away from home, saddling yourself with hefty debts, is that it will help you get a job, any sensible 18-year-old with average A-levels, contemplating without enthusiasm a course in, say, media studies, would be entitled to ask how helpful a moderate degree from an undistinguished university will be.

Last month, the Higher Education Statistics Agency, having surveyed a quarter of a million students who graduated in 2004, found that 5.9 per cent were unemployed, more than one per cent higher than the national average. Only one in five graduates felt a degree had given them a significant advantage at work.

So when the DfES embarks on its forthcoming campaign to persuade sixth-formers that university is worth every penny of debt and £3,000-a-year fees, it might bear in mind that a job qualification, available in three years' time, may not be the most powerful selling-point to a teenager. Universities, government spinmasters should point out, can offer a world of experience, broaden horizons, provide fun of all sorts of respectable and disgraceful kinds - and will help you get a better job at the end. If you play it right, the delay before adult life starts in earnest can provide not just skills for work but equip you better for life.

Some people, of course, will be unimpressed and will prefer to get a job sooner rather than later. And why not? The social engineering which assumes that all teenagers with passable intelligence, and a few without, will benefit from a university education is patronising and stupid.

The decision to work rather than go to university is more likely to be taken by the less-privileged in society, and it could be argued that encouraging that kind of choice is at odds with the Government's commitment to educational equality. But then so is the present system. The latest figures show that the percentage of university entrants from state schools actually fell between 2003 and 2004, in spite of the general broadening of opportunities at the lower level. At the top, we have the extraordinary situation that Cambridge and Oxford still only take slightly more than 50 per cent of their intake from the state sector.

The reason for this imbalance is simple. Private schools operate according to the market. A-levels and university places are their capital. Pupils deemed to be potentially unprofitable are culled ruthlessly after their GCSEs. Those who remain benefit from a hothouse approach to exams. They are in tune with the Blairite model of university before they even start.

To do anything about the advantage gained by private school children within the university system would involve addressing British education's great problem - the huge, debilitating divide in opportunity that exists within a system where the best teaching and facilities can be bought by the richest.

None of which should be taken by those who happen to be about to embark on university life as a reason to be one of those 71,000 drop-outs. A few might genuinely discover three more years' study is not for them. The rest should know that the bewilderment and homesickness of those first terms will soon pass and that, even for medievalists, university can be fun.