Comment

I got a Mickey Mouse degree, minister – and what’s wrong with that?

The point of going to university isn’t just to make money, writes former teacher Ryan Coogan. Gillian Keegan’s crusade against ‘ripoff’ courses betrays a lack of understanding of her sector

Wednesday 29 May 2024 16:25 BST
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University challenged: Education secretary Gillian Keegan has promised to ‘outlaw ripoff degree courses’ – but has failed to name any
University challenged: Education secretary Gillian Keegan has promised to ‘outlaw ripoff degree courses’ – but has failed to name any (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

If I asked you to name the most useless degree you could think of, you’d probably go for one of the old standbys: underwater basket weaving. A gendered perspective of interpretive dance. Journalism.

Luckily for us, our esteemed government has finally decided to do away with the scourge of “Mickey Mouse degrees”, so that future generations can focus on the things that really matter, like data management, and whatever a “consultant” does. After all, why pursue your passions when you can make £45k a year pretending to understand AI?

Writing in The Telegraph, education secretary Gillian Keegan has promised to “outlaw ripoff degrees” to prevent students from being “lured on to courses that don’t deliver the outcomes people deserve”, preferring instead to champion apprenticeships.

If you’re wondering what constitutes a “ripoff degree”, it appears the Tories don’t know either.

During an interview with Emma Barnett on Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday morning, Damian Hinds, minister of state for schools was unable to name any examples of courses which he would classify as a “ripoff”, despite being asked directly three times.

To be fair to Hinds, he said that he didn’t want to single out any one university course – but, as Barnett pointed out, you can’t use inflammatory language like “ripoff” and then not expect people to be curious as to what qualifies. If anything, that ambiguity should worry us, since it invites the possibility that courses could be outlawed based on the whims of people who won’t make the effort to understand them.

I did what most people would probably classify as a “Mickey Mouse degree” – actually, I did a few. I took Comparative Literature at BA – which is like English, except you don’t read any authors people have heard of – and then I did the same at Masters level. I also did a PhD in women’s poetry, which is what some cultures say when they don’t have a word for “unemployable”.

That being said, those so-called useless degrees helped me escape the council estate I grew up on, and now I work as an editor and columnist for a national newspaper. It hasn’t been an easy road by any means, but it certainly wasn’t hindered in any way by studying subjects that the likes of Gillian Keegan would scoff at. In fact, it wasn’t until I got to university that things really started to click for me – not necessarily because of the specifics of the course I was on, but because the university system as a whole helps you to think about things in a different way.

Contrary to what this policy suggests, the point of a degree isn’t to train you how to do a specific job, or even to work in a specific industry – that’s what apprenticeships are for. Rather, degrees are designed to cultivate a variety of essential skills that can be applied to a number of different sectors. Your degree might say “Art History”, but that doesn’t mean you’re limited to working in a museum or gallery once you graduate (in this economy you’d be lucky to get a job in either).

During the course of your education you learn how to write, how to analyse sources, how to complete projects, how to present in front of a group, how to synthesise and evaluate information and how to use technology to present data – all skills that will help you in a variety of industries, and which are sorely lacking in many of them (I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve worked for a manager who couldn’t send a coherent email).

This was something we used to understand, intuitively. It’s why so many older people are confused that their grandchildren are still unable to find work despite having “a degree” – not “a degree in business management”, or “a degree in economics” – because they remember a time, not too long ago, when the fact that you had completed a degree at all was enough for a potential employer to see that you were a cut above other potential applicants.

The fact is, if people are struggling to land jobs with their so-called “Mickey Mouse degrees”, that’s a direct result of 14 years of poor management of the economy, and a flagging job market, brought to you by the same party which is now trying to pin the blame on hard-working educators. What a surprise that the people who gave us “we’re sick of experts” would try to pawn their own incompetence off on people who have dedicated their lives to a field of study.

Of course, one of the biggest arguments against “low-value” degrees comes down to the issue of money. You don’t want to spend close to 10k a year if you aren’t going to make that money back down the line. But whose fault is that? Of course people are going to be put off going to university if the price is too high – we said as much back in 2012 when you tripled the cap on university fees and made the prospect of university education even more remote for working-class kids.

Talking about the “value of education” in financial terms completely ignores the simple fact that education is valuable in and of itself. That’s something we should be focusing on, rather than demonising certain subjects because they don’t fit our specific definition of what it means to be “productive”. Our higher education sector is already a shambles due to this exact kind of corporatisation – bastardising it even further isn’t going to help anybody.

In putting forth this policy, the education secretary suggests that she doesn’t understand the sector over which she presides. Maybe she could stand to learn a thing or two.

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