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Why do people go to university?

Changes to admissions systems in the UK and Ireland simply tinker with the existing approach. They don’t address the more fundamental changes in the relationship between university education, economic and social life.

We’re in the middle of a lot of changes in academia, with the fees increase for students in England eliciting a response in Scotland, and a report in Ireland suggesting changes to the “points” system of admissions to introduce more targeting. Despite the upsets these changes cause to academics — they heighten the arbitrary and distressing discontinuity in costs between Scottish and English students in St Andrews, for example — they’re actually quite superficial in the sense of not massively changing the degrees on offer or their structure. However, these would seem to be the areas in which change could be most fruitful, in response to changing patterns of life, patterns of access to information and the like. It’s hard to generate enthusiasm for this amid the problems of managing the financial structures. In other words, the fees débâcle may be masking changes that we would otherwise be well advised to make.

What are these changes? First of all we need to understand what we believe about the lives and futures of the people who might attend university. For me this includes the following:

People don’t know what they’re passionate about. Passionate enough to want to spend a substantial portion of their lives on it, that is. There’s a tendency to follow an “approved” path into a stable career, and this in may in some cases lead people to do the “wrong” degree as they worry about their job prospects. But if you’re going into a career in something, you have to accept that you’ll spend about half your waking life on it. It makes sense to be sure you’ll enjoy it. So we need to focus on allowing people to find their passions, which argues against too-early specialisation and for a broader course of study.

My first postdoc supervisor, Chris Wadsworth, told me about 20 years ago that “it takes you 10 years to decide what you’re actually interested in.” In your mid-20s you tend to disregard statements like this and assume you know what your research interests are, but on reflection he was right: it did take me about 10 years to work out what I wanted to spend my career researching, and it wasn’t really what I was doing back then: related, yes, but definitely off to one side. I’ve also become interested in a whole range of other things that were of no interest to me back then, not least because most of them didn’t exist. If that’s true of an academic, it’s just as true of an 18-year-old undergraduate. You can have an idea what you like and what interests you, but not much more than that.

We can’t teach enough. It used to be simpler: go to university, learn all the things you’ll need, then go and practice those skills with marginally upgrading for the rest of your career. I can’t think of many topics like that any more.

This changes the emphasis of education: it’s not the stuff we teach that’s important, it’s the ability to upskill effectively. For that you need foundations, and you need to know the important concepts, and you need to be able to figure out the details for yourself. It’s not that these details aren’t important — in computing, for example, they’re critical — but they’re also changing so fast that there’s no way we could keep up. And in fact, if we did, we’d be doing the students a dis-service by suggesting that this isn’t a process of constant change.

The jobs that people will want to do in 20 years’ time don’t exist now. Fancy a career as a web designer? Didn’t exist 20 years ago; 10 years ago it was a recognised and growing profession; lately it’s become part and parcel of graphic design. The world changes very rapidly. Even if the job you love still exists, there’s a good chance you’ll want to change to another one mid-career. Again, the ability to learn new skills becomes essential. I suspect a lot of people — including politicians — haven’t appreciated just how fast the world is changing, and that the pace of change is accelerating. You don’t have to believe in the Sigularity to believe that this has profound implications for how economies and careers work.

We don’t know where the future value comes from. In a time of increased financial stress, governments fall back on supporting courses that “obviously” support economic growth: the STEM subjects in science, engineering, technology and medicine. The only problem with this as an argument is that it’s wrong. Most of the value in the digital age hasn’t come from these areas. The profits at Apple and Google pale into insignificance behind the aggregate profits of the companies (often much smaller) making content to add value to the devices and services these companies provide. I’ve argued before that this value chain is best supported by humanities graduates, not scientists and engineers. (If you want a supporting example, consider this as a proposition: the whole argument about network neutrality is essentially an argument about whether ISPs should be allowed to tax the producers and consumers of the content they transmit in terms of its end-user value, rather than in terms of its transmission cost. That’s where the value is.)

Does the above have anything to suggest about changes in admissions or the structure of degrees. To me it suggests a number of things. Have broad introductory years in which students are encouraged to explore their wider interests before specialising. (The Scottish broad curriculum attempts to do this, but in sciences we don’t do it particularly well.) Focus teaching on core principles and on how these affect the evolution of tools and techniques. Also focus on students learning the tools and techniques themselves, and showing how they relate back to the taught core. Generate a set of smaller degree-lets that people can take over their career with less commitment: at a distance, in the evening, in compressed blocks, over a long period — whatever, just suitable for people to do alongside working at something else. Above all, don’t assume we (either the universities or the State) can pick winners in terms of subjects. We’re definitely in a post-industrial world, that means new intellectual territory and that what worked before won’t always work in the future. I hope computer science will continue to change the world, but I’m also completely confident that a history graduate will come up with one of the Next Big Things.


1 Comment

  1. […] “Changes to admis­sions sys­tems in the UK and Ire­land simply tinker with the exist­ing approach. They don’t address the more fun­da­mental changes in the rela­tion­ship between uni­ver­sity edu­ca­tion, eco­nomic and social life. We’re in the middle of a lot of changes in aca­demia, with the fees increase for stu­dents in Eng­land eli­cit­ing a response in Scot­land, and a report in Ire­land sug­gest­ing changes to the ‘points’ sys­tem of admis­sions to intro­duce more tar­get­ing …” (more) […]

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