This article features in our recent Education Special Issue, released in April 2020. More information about this issue is available HERE.

Like a migratory shoal of fish after algae, tuition fees will not leave politics alone. The debate is a necessary one, but it is a mask for the more important debate of how we should structure our school system, and what principles that system should be based on.

Modern universities are, increasingly, not educational institutions, but businesses; worrying more about profit margins than about standards. My home university, for example, is often abbreviated to the ‘University of Easy Access’, because of its notorious practice of accepting students who have achieved far below the advertised entry standards. 

Like many universities, it offers such students a ‘foundation year’, in order to make up for a lack of ‘typical academic qualifications’. This ‘foundation year’ costs the student extra money, and is a way for the university to make more of a profit. 

Universities no longer value education above all else; they now continually compromise their standards in exchange for cash. 

Both the students, and society at large suffer as a result of this attitude, and many students who should never have been admitted to university in the first place will now spend the rest of their lives wallowing in debt with nothing to show for it. 

And worse still are those students who will become the next generation of doctors, scientists, and politicians, who will now be worse doctors, scientists, and politicians than they could have been under a different system.

There are two main problems with British universities today. Firstly, they are run for profit’s sake. And secondly, there are far too many of them. As governments have granted university status to more and more colleges, more and more people have been going to university; this may appear to be a positive initially, but is, in fact, the cause of many deep educational problems. 

Most universities are not good educators; they take in many students who they shouldn’t, and teach them poorly. Not everyone should be an academic, and not everyone can be an academic; our current system is a ‘one size fits all system’, and this disadvantages everyone. 

In the jobs that most of us will go into, experience and practical skills are the most useful tools we can hold in our armoury. After all, what use would a university educated mechanic be? They would benefit far more in their job by being taught hands-on, instead of memorising theory in a lecture hall. 

Universities are – or, rather, should be – places of ‘higher’ education; and by ‘higher’, we mean pure mathematics, philosophy, and natural philosophy, not basic administration. You should not need to go to university to have a good enough grasp of maths to become an accountant; most accountancy jobs do not even ask for a mathematics degree; instead, they ask for any degree at all. The actual degree is irrelevant to such employers; what is relevant to them is the applicant’s ability to work with numbers, and their overall intelligence. 

Most employers don’t look for specific degrees, but, instead, proof of competency. This is where the roots of all our educational problems stem from. 

Our young people need to be press-ganged into higher education because lower education fails so pathetically to teach them what they need to know. It would be far too expensive for the government to pay fees for every young person in Britain, so instead, they allow universities to charge a premium for their now indispensable services and, in return for doing the job of state education for the state, the universities are paid handsomely, not by the government itself, but by the populace.

This, one must admit, is a tremendously clever bit of politics; the government outsources its educational problems to a foreign body, at a low cost to itself, while simultaneously keeping down youth unemployment.

Now, the government can ignore its failing educational system with little cost to itself, whilst simultaneously boosting the economy. Of course, if we improved lower education to the point where employers would be happy to take applicants only with GCSEs and A-levels, or, of course, apprenticeship qualifications, there would be less need for degrees, and we could have fewer people going to university. 

If we had fewer university students, the government could then far more manageably pay the tuition fees of those remaining in higher education. 

With the business aspect of universities removed, those who would benefit most – and who would most benefit wider society – from a high-quality education would receive exactly that. This would also force the government to reform, and to improve our education system lower down, something that could only benefit the populace, as well as increase productivity. 

With the reliance on university gone, we could also encourage apprenticeships, and traineeships, thus providing the country with more much-needed semi-skilled and skilled workers. 

We will always need electricians, welders, mechanics, and plumbers. They are vital jobs to keep our society going, and the skills they need cannot be taught in a university setting. If we stick to our narrow, and far too an academic view of what education should provide, we will continue to force those who are better suited as electricians into working in, say, an office, where his skills are wasted. 

We need more choice and specialisation in our education system, and we need a higher quality of education in general.

Do not think, however, that I would stop schools teaching Shakespeare, or any of the other culturally significant works of art and literature. This should all be taught, otherwise pupils will not be able to make an informed decision on what career they might want to pursue. But, it should be taught in lower school, and it should be taught well. 

Grammar schools, coupled with technical schools, as in the German style, would provide both choice and a higher education standard; and only when our problems with lower education are solved can we then solve the problems of our universities.


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