We need to get over our degree fetish

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British universities have been severely hit by the pandemic. Over the last decade, they came to rely on a river of revenue from visiting Chinese students, which never looked like ending. Floating on this Yangtze of cash, universities got rich and launched grand plans to expand. Every university town you visited, you’d see tower blocks being constructed, to provide luxury apartments for the Chinese visitors.

Now, the river has dried up. Chinese students may stay home, for health and political reasons, and one in five British students may also reconsider going to university in September. Universities could lose as much as half of their revenue this year. Several are facing insolvency.

Universities UK asked the government for a multi-billion-pound bail-out, but it doesn’t look like that will happen. Instead, the education minister ditched Tony Blair’s goal of getting 50% of the population a degree, and called for a historic refocusing on further education.

It is a very tough time for my embattled colleagues in higher education. If they still have jobs in September, they face a choice between teaching in person (and risking infection) or teaching online from home, neither very appealing. For thousands of post-grads, the dream of a career in academia looks even more shaky now.

However, every crisis is an opportunity. This huge disruption is an opportunity to rethink tertiary education, a sector which somehow still offers the same old product it has flogged for a century: the three-year full-time degree in one subject, aimed mainly at school-leavers. It is time the sector offered a much more flexible array of courses and pathways.

The present system doesn’t work for anyone except VCs

As David Goodhart pointed out in an article for Unherd, the present system doesn’t work very well for students or staff or society. The only people it does work for is vice-chancellors and senior academics, who get big salaries to manage the vast degree factories they sit atop.

It doesn’t work well for students because it saddles them with high levels of debt for a degree of diminishing quality — student to teacher ratios rise as universities expand, grades get inflated to keep the customer satisfied until pretty much everyone gets a first or 2.1, and many graduates do not find jobs that would justify their expenditure.

The degree factory forces young people through an industrialized bottleneck — the full-time three-year specialized degree — which is not suited to the modern workplace, where people often change careers, and not suited to the century of breakneck change in which we find ourselves.

It’s not entirely clear why there is a mental health ‘crisis’ among undergraduates and PhDs, with levels of anxiety and depression rising. But it could be because being forced through this industrial bottleneck, at the precise age mental health problems often first arise, can be a very intense and unpleasant experience.

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Slide from a presentation by Dr Oliver Robinson of Greenwich University

You have so much going on at that age, emotionally and existentially. You must figure out who you are, navigate identity, socializing, sex, booze and drugs, learn how to handle your emotions, and all while cramming in information that you will forget in three years. The institution responsible for you at this time is a vast bureaucratic washing machine in which 10,000 or so other souls spin around before being ejected into society. Welcome to adult life kid. Welcome to the machine.

Offering well-being services to students while they’re in this industrial bottleneck is like cramming cattle into a lorry for a long-distance journey, and then piping in ambient music to keep them calm.

And yet we force students through this process, this cruel ‘rite of passage’, because of the fetishistic glamour of ‘the degree’. It is like circumcision, proof you belong to the tribe of middle-class professionals. Parents fall for it, employers fall for it, ministers fall for it, because they all went through it too, and they imagine it must be good for everyone else. The dream of social mobility becomes the nightmare of forcing ever more young people through this industrial bottleneck. You have mental health issues? Hang on in there, just another two and a half years.

As Harry Lambert wrote in an excellent New Statesman article in 2019, there are marked parallels between British higher education and the American housing market of the 2000s. Both sold a dream of middle-class respectability through a magic signifier — the home, the degree — which became wildly inflated on a pyramid of debt and low-quality products.

The present system doesn’t work well for staff either. It’s not much fun to be a cog in one of these industrial factories. There’s an intense focus on producing research for the ‘Research Excellence Framework’ — which, believe me, is as empty and meaningless an exercise in quality-control as you will ever encounter — and the sheer number of researchers out there mean you are forced to focus on a tiny topic, and publish in a journal few will ever read.

While the senior academics focus on research, the teaching is largely done by post-graduates. When you add up the time to prepare, teach and then mark courses, it’s below minimum wage, but they do it because they’re desperate to achieve their dream of being an academic, devoted to a life of intellectual inquiry. There are hardly any jobs for post-grads at the end of their PhDs, so they have to suck up to the elders in their field in the hope of preferment, which promotes conformism and herd-think (God help you if you’re not left-wing). If you’re lucky, after you get your PhD you will get a job in university admin. You still harbour the dream of a life of free intellectual inquiry, but you spend most of your time processing expenses forms through the university’s Kafka-esque expenses system. The machine makes you miserable, it makes your students miserable, but it makes the VCs and senior academics rich.

The degree factory is not good for society either, although tax-payers subsidize it to the tune of about £30bn a year (£10bn or so on research funding and £10bn through student loans that won’t be paid back). The factory churns out students with ‘degrees’ that are not necessarily fitted to job opportunities. Many degrees basically prepare you to be an academic in that subject. What’s the point of that?

More than that, the middle-class fetish about the magical degree as a proof of tribal identity creates a social divide between the have-degrees and the have-nots. Why should the have-nots subsidize the haves through their tax payments? Why should further education get so much less than higher education?

What makes this divide even worse is the have-degrees then look down on the have-nots and pour scorn and snobbery upon them. The widening polarisation in western societies is to some extent a product of this divide — on issues like the Trump election or Brexit, the main predictor of your voting behaviour is whether you have a degree or not. Both these votes were, in some ways, a fuck you from the have-nots to the haves, for their cultural arrogance as much as anything else.

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Yet these votes only produced an even greater stream of snobbish invective from the have-degrees. It has been really extraordinary to watch Twitter over the last four years and see have-degrees look down from the parapets and pour boiling oil onto the revolting have-nots below. So often, the implication in their derision is ‘God you’re ignorant. I’m a have-degree, I’m an expert, I’m cultured. You’re a barbarian. Look at those idiots, defending a statue of George Eliot. Ha! What morons! As if they even who George Eliot is!’

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It is unpleasant. And they think they are being ‘progressive’ when they do this. Progressivism today, from Corbyn to Black Lives Matter to the Guardian to the New York Times, can sometimes appear an elitist club for snobbish have-degrees to pour scorn on the ignorant and backward have-nots. They can be exercises in exclusionary semiotics. You need a culture studies degree to understand what they are talking about. (I realize this is a contentious generalization about BLM but there is a risk of a Black protest movement being adopted and co-opted by White liberals, as seems to have happened in Portland).

Fresh thinking

Much of this situation could be changed if we move one piece on the chess board: remove the mystique of the full-time three-year specialized degree. Get over our cultural obsession with it as a marker of middle-class respectability. Offer a much more flexible range of courses, and let young people choose when, what and how they study. Break down the wall between higher and further education and let students take courses from both.

One way of doing this is the lifelong learning allowance. I suggested something along these lines in an essay last year, and have since found that others came to a similar conclusion, including Tom Schuller, whose excellent research on this topic I heartily recommend, and the massive Augar review on higher and further education, which came out last year.

The idea is the government gives every school leaver an allowance to spend on the courses they want, when they want it. They may choose to do a year’s education after school, then go into the work-place, then do another course for three months, then take another job, and so on. They may go straight into the workplace and then take a sabbatical to re-train or expand their mind when they’re 25, or 30, or 40, or 50.

University is wasted on the young. It’s three years of information force-fed to dozy and confused teenagers who mainly want to sleep, drink, shag and scroll social media. It’s a tragic waste of a golden educational opportunity, which would be far better received if spread out in smaller chunks over a lifetime.

The three-year degree in one subject might make perfect sense to the senior academics who preside like gargoyles over degree curricula, but it makes no sense for students or society. You really don’t need to do three years studying English Literature, or Business, or , except perhaps medicine (even in medicine, they would be helped a great deal by being offered a broader education which includes the humanities).

It makes much more sense to take several shorter courses on a range of subjects, both skills-based, STEM, and arts and humanities, over the course of your life. You could give every person a top-up when they reach 50.

This system would be better for students, less of an industrial bottleneck, more flexible and responsive to their developmental, economic and vocational needs. It wouldn’t require them to go through the weird intensity and pain of the three-year ‘rite of passage’ to prove they are a middle-class professional.

It would be better for society — more equitable, less socially divisive, creating more rounded adults with skills and learning in a range of topics, rather than students indoctrinated in the cult of one academic discipline.

And it would arguably be better for teachers. They would get to teach more mature students who actually want to be there, rather than feckless teenagers sitting bored through the factory conveyor belt so they can get branded as middle-class at the end. They might also be able to work at smaller, more soulful institutions rather than being forced to work in these massive machines.

It would be particularly good for humanities teachers, in subjects like philosophy, which are not very popular as three-year degrees (why would you do a philosophy degree, unless you wanted to be a philosophy academic) but are very popular as shorter courses in the informal education market.

Critics will object that the lifelong learning allowance was tried before, in the late 90s, in the form of the ‘individual learning allowance’, and the scheme had to be closed down in 2001 because some of the 8500 ‘accredited providers’ made a fast buck defrauding students. There are obviously lessons to be learned from that debacle. But experts in further education — including the Augar Report — seem confident that the system could be run more carefully and with better quality control. Make it harder to be a qualified provider, I guess.

For too long, academics are only heard in British public debate when they are defending their own economic position, or pouring scorn on the political opinions of those without degrees. Meanwhile the sector seems incapable of renewing itself or offering a more flexible array of paths for students to follow. Universities have let their adult education departments close, focusing on the golden goose of Chinese students while losing touch with the communities around them.

Now, the sector is being forced to change. The suffering this disruption will cause is nothing to crow about. I feel very sorry for colleagues being forced through such painful changes to their livelihood. But a new system could work better for everyone, including those devoted to a life of intellectual inquiry.

Written by

Fellow @ Centre for the History of the Emotions. Author of Philosophy for Life, Art of Losing Control, and new book Breaking Open www.philosophyforlife.org

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