Amid all the debate about the student mental health crisis, one idea is never put forward by the experts.
Don’t go to university.
Why pay £8000 a year for an experience that apparently damages your well-being?
I read a Guardian long-read on the student mental health crisis this morning, and as it listed all the stress that students face, and all the possible solutions, I wondered why the author never suggested the obvious solution.
We spend millions on campaigns to reduce other behaviour that harms well-being, like smoking, for example.
So why not have a public health campaign: ‘You don’t have to go to university. And if you do, you don’t have to stay.’
In all seriousness, why go to university?
For the education? You’ll probably spend three years learning a discipline which will be minimal help to you as you negotiate the fast-changing (and possibly collapsing) society of tomorrow.
Let’s admit it, most students pay £30,000 or so not for the education, but for the qualification, for the piece of paper saying they graduated from Liverpool or Cardiff or wherever.
That piece of paper means they’re magically transformed from a proletariat ugly duckling to a swan-like middle-class professional, in their eyes, the eyes of their family, the eyes of their employers, and the eyes of society.
The government and universities have focused on higher inclusion, on getting as many people as possible through university, because they’re selling a dream of social mobility and an expanding middle class.
20 years ago, Tony Blair announced the target of half the population going to university, and this month, it was finally achieved — just over 50% of the population now go to university, up from 40% a decade ago.
Get them in and keep them in, even if it shackles them in debt right at the start of life, even if they’re not emotionally up to it and can barely attend lectures, even if the degree they buy is really shoddy, and won’t actually improve their earnings.
Meanwhile, that official license for middle-class respectability condemns those without it — the new proletariat — to ignominy, lower earnings (companies increasingly demand degrees for even middle-skilled jobs, because they’re too lazy to do proper interviews), and even less sex (more women go to university than men, then complain there are too few university-educated men for them to marry).
The growing division between the have-degrees and have-nots is one of the things driving the culture war and populist uprisings in the US and UK. Those with degrees are more likely to support Remain in the UK or Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election, while those without degrees (particularly men) are more likely to support Brexit and Trump.
Working-class men see the pious liberalism of middle-class graduates for what it is: a club that denies them entry.
Are we selling a bullshit dream of middle-class respectability, via a qualification that actually impoverishes those who hold it, both materially and emotionally, while increasing polarisation in our society?
It reminds me of the American housing market in the 80s and 90s, when government-sponsored mortgage buyers like Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae sold the dream of middle-class home ownership to billions of Americans, even if the mortgages become more and more cruddy and the mountain of debt became more and more unsustainable.
A very good recent cover story in the New Statesman, called ‘the Great University Con’, made the same comparison. Degrees, says author Harry Lambert, were once a reliable indicator of academic quality. But there’s been massive grade inflation over the last 20 years, to the point where almost 80% of students now get a First or 2:1, compared to 47% in the early 90s. It’s like the inflation of credit ratings for sub-prime mortgages.
As for the PhD market, which is also booming, that’s even more of a rip-off. Universities sell people the dream of becoming an academic. You can be an intellectual, for £15000 a year.
But the dream rapidly becomes a nightmare — bad supervision, social isolation, forced to do a topic that is crushingly narrow and boring, which nobody wants to read at the end (least of all you). And guess what! At the end of your three years there are no academic jobs. Only 23% of PhDs become post-doctoral researchers.
If you want one of the very few empty places in the desperate game of musical chairs, you better suck up big time to the elders in your tiny field — because they control exactly who gets to fill those spaces, who gets published, who gets funding, who gets jobs. Not a recipe for radical new ideas.
The higher education sector desperately needs fresh, radical thinking, not just this endless tinkering with the leaky Victorian plumbing.
Why go to university?
If the answer is ‘to be prepared for the workplace’, then clearly the workplace itself does this far better, and they pay you. They pay you.
If you’re going to university to ‘become a well-rounded, flourishing, morally mature individual’ — that is a lifetime project, not something that happens over three years.
And it’s not something best achieved by studying one subject, purely intellectually, for three years. That prepares you to be an academic.
Here’s an alternative radical suggestion.
You go straight into the workplace, but the state gives you credits, which you can spend on shorter university courses throughout your life.
You can use these courses to acquire different skills and grow continually, with the aim of becoming a truly well-rounded mature individual.
Coding. Carpentry. Basic accounting. Renaissance art. YouTube video production. Practical philosophy. Cooking. Mountain-climbing. Local politics. Permaculture. How to set up your own company.
This is the de-schooling vision laid out by a Croatian philosopher and Catholic priest called Ivan Illich.
School, he said, was too much of a factory system, creating over-specialized and over-institutionalized battery chickens.
Like battery chickens, our school children are cram-fed, tested, measured and institutionalized on the way through the factory, and end up going to university anxious and terrified of failing.
Then they are forced through another high-pressure funnel — the three-year degree, cramming them in one academic discipline.
The result of this pressure-funneling, wrote Illich, ‘is very often not human flourishing but…an out-of-control system in which the humans become worn-down mechanical parts.’
He wrote: ‘The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.’
The result of our factory education system is a sort of learned helplessness, not autonomy and flourishing. You come out indoctrinated in how to fulfill the demands of institutional managers so as to get their approval in the form of qualifications. You learn what it takes to get a good mark.
If students find that extremely stressful, they now get well-being experts to support them. This risks just becoming another form of learned helplessness.
You learn how to get a diagnosis, how to disclose it, how to get professional help so you can get back on the factory line.
Rather than coming to realize that life is suffering.
That this is the human condition.
We can discover wisdom to help us manage and even transform suffering but life will always be hard and somewhat mysterious.
Any university well-being strategy that does not recognize the inevitability of suffering is doomed to failure.
Any university well-being strategy that does not recognize the potential meaning in suffering, particularly in the existential suffering of young adults, is doomed to banality.
If you think you can ‘fix’ a young person’s existential suffering with some quick technocratic fix, you’re actually denying them the meaning, the dignity and the mystery of suffering.
As our society is about to go through radical changes (most notably automation and the climate crisis), we need to learn to be nimble, flexible, hands-on and adaptive.
We need to learn how to keep on learning throughout life, as it throws both shocks and opportunities our way.
Our education system — both school and university — shapes us for the opposite sort of society, for a static 1950s society where people have jobs for life.
Education should be lifelong — it’s wasted on 18-year-olds who mainly want to sleep, shag and SnapChat. People in later life, by contrast, are dying to learn. And they have real life experience to draw on. They are ripe for self-cultivation.
Courses should be short stints of a few days, weeks or months, rather than exhausting 10-week sprints.
They should offer introductions to several subjects, not three years in one discipline.
And they should potentially offer more than just an intellectual training. They should offer training in knowledge, skills, ideas and physical practices. Mental, emotional, spiritual, political and practical.
That training can in part be offered by companies.
In fact, it already is — some US companies now team up with universities to offer ‘micro-masters’ in particular subjects and skill.
My own first employer, Euromoney, although in many ways an awful company, did at least offer new graduates a six-month training course in journalism. It was very useful, and still comes in handy.
Companies should also stop being lazy interviewers who just look at the university name on the CV as a proxy for a good employee. It really isn’t.
It’s time for fresh ideas, and one of them should be: don’t go to university.
At least, not in the old way.
Not in the three-year crammed degree which you’re expected to do at 18 or you’re a failure.
You’re not a failure if you choose not to go down that funnel. You’re interesting.
We should be able to learn our whole life, how we want, and both the state and universities should give us more flexible options.