University — the path to penury?

By Vernon Bogdanor, August 4, 2010
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Education, education, education, Tony Blair’s favourite nostrum, has been a Jewish slogan throughout the ages. In Britain, the characteristic pattern has been for the son of an immigrant to become a self-made entrepreneur so that his son can go to university and become a professional — “my son the doctor” or “my son the lawyer”. And nowadays, “my daughter”, too.

Is that pattern now about to change? Expenditure cuts mean that the universities face a funding crisis. Students will have to contribute more towards the cost of their education. The Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, Vince Cable, has proposed a graduate tax, which means that graduates will pay higher taxes than non-graduates. And, with more and more 18-year-olds going to university, a degree is no longer the automatic passport to a job that it was in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Conservative minister responsible for the universities, David Willetts, has suggested that graduates who find it difficult to get a job should consider setting up their own businesses. Such a suggestion is by no means novel. Margaret Thatcher, apparently, once asked the Guardian journalist, Hugo Young, why he did not do something useful like setting up a small business!

The Willetts proposal resonates well with the instincts of Jews, and perhaps other ethnic minorities also, that they do better relying on their own abilities rather than becoming dependent upon the state or upon large corporations.

One young man interviewed recently by the BBC has gone even further. He proposed to avoid university altogether and leave school early in order to set up a business. This may signal a new trend. How necessary is a university education? Might it not be more sensible for young people to get into the labour market as soon as they can?

The universities are often accused of failing to prepare young people for the world of work. The British educational system does well in training an academic elite. It does less well in inculcating the technical and vocational skills that are so essential in the modern world.

The coalition government’s hopes for economic success rest with a dynamic private sector. But that depends on young people having the necessary skills; at present too many young people are allowed to enter the labour market without any qualifications at all, a problem first noticed by Winston Churchill when President of the Board of Trade in 1908! If vocational and technical education were better, the young man interviewed on the radio might have taken that path — an apprenticeship and not a degree course — rather than having to learn about business “on the job”.

Perhaps the government has something to learn from the success of ORT, founded in the 1880s to help Russian Jews acquire necessary skills. Its former chairman, Lord Young, a Cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher, is now advising David Cameron on health and safety issues. Might he not also be asked to advise on improving vocational and technical education? At the very least, he might persuade the government to remove the bias in funding against part-time and vocational students.

Yet, in our concern for economic progress, we must not lose sight of the real purpose of higher education. A university education is a wonderful privilege, and the more who can benefit from it the better. This is not because it will necessarily lead to gainful employment, although often it will. The real reason is that higher education satisfies something that lies deep in all of us, the urge to understand the world in which we live.

Men and women are curious creatures. As Aristotle noticed, two-and-a-half thousand years ago, they have an intense desire to know and to understand. A university education allows young people to take three years out from the business of earning a living so that they can open their minds. That is its ultimate justification. Perhaps when the young man in that BBC interview has succeeded as an entrepreneur, he might decide to study Greek literature or particle physics, not because it will make him rich, but to satisfy his curiosity. Einstein, after all, studied relativity not because of its practical applications but because he wanted to understand.

In 1854, the Working Men’s College, Britain’s first independent body devoted to adult education, was established. Its motto was defiant, and very Jewish: “We seek no greater good than education. We scorn to justify it save by itself”.

Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government, Oxford University, and editor of ‘From the New Jerusalem to New Labour: British Prime Ministers from Attlee to Blair’, published by Macmillan.

    Last updated: 10:31am, September 14 2011

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