What are universities for?

Philip Hensher, Independent columnist

What are universities for? The answer is simple: to teach, and to research.
The two core tasks have been taken somewhat for granted until recently. Now,
in common with most public endeavours, they are being subjected to
measurement and codification. I would say that what worries many people
professionally involved in education is that the act of measurement will
make what they do much less significant, by forcing the implementation of
short-term measures of improvement.

Lord Mandelson was careful yesterday to pay homage to both ?civilisation and
competitiveness?. But will the Government?s upgrading of qualities called
?impact? really encourage the top end of research? Much of the significant
work to come out of universities has, historically, emerged through
research, which hardly knows, at the beginning, what it is searching for.
The great speculative leap in the sciences when data shows a completely
unsuspected trend; the summing up of years of reading and study in the arts
? these are not going to be encouraged by demands to see what has been
achieved in the last 12 months, or, in some cases, the last 10 years.

It is difficult to envisage some of the major public projects of intellectual
life being undertaken in the present climate. I have on my shelves the
Clarendon edition of Dickens?s letters, the editing and preparation of which
took the best part of half a century. One of the major historical projects
of recent years has been Jonathan Sumption?s multi-volume history of the
Hundred Years War. Mr Sumption is a QC, and it is difficult to think of an
institution which would encourage an academic historian to embark on such a
project nowadays.

And when it comes to teaching, the entire idea seems to be driven by the false
notion of students as consumers. More teaching; more contact hours; more
numbers of Firsts. I?m sure it?s what they will get. Whether it is what the
true consumers, the students? ultimate employers, will recognize as added
value remains to be seen.

Susan Anderson, the CBI?s director of education and skills policy.

You could be forgiven if you missed the figures released yesterday by
Universities UK which showed the economic impact of universities. Some
people may be surprised to learn that our universities generate £59bn for
the economy and 668,500 jobs, as well as bringing in £3.3bn from
international students.

According to UUK estimates, higher education has become a more important
source of export revenues than alcoholic drinks or the cultural and media
industries and it certainly has the capacity for further rapid growth.

So, universities are good for the economy. But what is the value of a
university education for an individual?

The message for students is, overwhelmingly, a positive one. An average
graduate will earn an additional £160,000 over their lifetime, compared to
those without degrees. The probability of employment is also an argument
made compellingly with numbers ? Bank of England figures show that over the
past decade those with degrees were more likely to get a job than those
without. While opportunities in the recession are hard to come by, as we
return to growth, graduate jobs will recover.

Business knows the value of a university education. But we do have some
concerns.

Even with more and more people going to university, not enough are studying
the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects that business
wants now, and will increasingly need in the future. Those wavering on
whether university is worth it, and which course to study, should know that
people with STEM degrees get, on average, higher earnings and a raft of
interesting career options.

Prospective students need access to the full facts and figures before deciding
on their next step ? whether it is university or some form of work-based
learning. They need much better information to help them make informed
choices ? employment rates for each course, drop out numbers and even,
controversially, contact hours.

It?s right that students see where their money is going and understand the
true value of a degree. On all measures, investing in skills and development
should be money well spent.

Professor Alan Smithers is director of the Centre for Education and
Employment at Buckingham University

Clearly, from the European agenda, there is a widespread feeling that we need
to increase participation and performance in STEM (science, technology,
engineering and maths) subjects as a basis for competing in the world
economy.

To be blunt, though, the number of physics graduates in the US and over here
has not gone up over long periods of time. Employment rates from STEM
subject courses does not tend to be especially high and graduates? lifetime
salaries tend to be rather low, possibly because they go on to do not so
well paid jobs as researchers at universities.

I think a university education is essentially about enabling people to make as
much as they can of this very puzzling gift we have ? which is really a
brief time on this small planet.

It is puzzling and it ought to be an opportunity for people to engage in
studying what helps them to make some sense of it.

In doing so they will develop skills important to the economy but through the
study of something they themselves are interested in in depth.

Ben Ferguson, who graduated from the University of Nottingham last year

The problem with asking whether university offers good value for money is that
you can?t actually price much of what the package gives you. It?s like
judging the quality of a country on its GDP, ignoring happiness and health
in the meantime.

Some may argue that, if the average humanities course offers six hours of
contact time a week, which works out at £50 a lecture, why pay the price
when you can read it all on Wikipedia for free?

I was tempted to leave school at 16 and was spat into higher education at 18
at the end of a treadmill that in hindsight I was glad to be on ? even
though it led me into debt and my 20s without being

skilled in anything other than making bean salads for 40p. Conversely, friends
who got off that treadmill earlier had already been nose to the grindstone
for five years by the time I left. Work was everything they expected and it
didn?t take them long to buy their first cars.

But it?s not all about earnings versus debts. Being money poor as a student
you?re also time rich, you?re afforded the chance to spend it on reading,
developing niche interests and doing things simply for the sake of it not
because it?ll earn you any money. University for me is therefore about the
unknown and having the time to delve into it as far as possible. So, study
whatever you find interesting and worry about work once you?ve exhausted all
the other options. That way you?ll feel it was worth it when you graduate
and realise you have to drudge your way through an unpaid internship in
clerical tasks.

Or, as W H Davies put it: ?What is this life if full of care/ We have no time
to stand and stare??

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