University, the Best Choice?

Does going to university really represent the best choice that a young person can make for themselves? The following article written by Gareth Lewis, and originally published in Freedom in Education, considers the arguments for and against.

My parents grew up in South Wales in the 1920s and 1930s at a time when only a small percentage of children went on to further education. Consequently, even though both of them did well at school, neither of them were able to go to university. Having come from a background where they had to fight hard for an education, it is not surprising that they should make every possible effort to ensure that their own children had the opportunities that were denied to them. This desire coincided with a rapid expansion in the number of university places in the UK, and, consequently, when I came to the end of my time at school, in the early 1970s, university was presented to me as an almost automatic choice: and I applied for, and was accepted on, a course to study biochemistry at York University.

I spent three years on my degree and, finding that it did not qualify me to do anything that I wanted to do, spent a further year doing a master of sciences degree in applied plant sciences, which also failed to provide me with a qualification that really matched my interests and inclinations. Putting this down to poor planning on my part, I moved on to other things and did not spend too much time analysing whether or not university had been a worthwhile use of my time.

In recent years, however, I have had to advise my own children about what might or might not be a sensible course for them to follow in life, and I have had cause to look at the whole question of university education through fresh eyes.

The good things about going to university for me were, firstly, the relative intellectual rigour of the course that I was on and, secondly, the chance that it gave me to see the institution for myself, from the inside, so that in later life I would not have to accept other people's word about what university is or is not really like.

Learning that We Really Know Nothing At All

The 1970s was a time of rapid development in the biological sciences. The course that I was on involved not only studying the current theories about the science of life, but also in examining the ruined reputations of eminent scientists who had staked everything on supporting cherished theories, which were forcibly overturned by the development of new technologies capable of making more accurate observations. I discovered that every scientific theory is based on a tenuous strand of logic, and that none of them should be regarded as established truths. At best, they are simply working hypotheses. Since my time at university I have never been able to understand why science is not presented in this light to the population at large. In particular, it is difficult to understand why schools should teach science as though it is a set of proven conclusions, while, at university, the basic tenet is that really we know nothing and that everything is open to question.

University as a Social Institution

Young people are presented with a very simplistic view of university: from the age of ten or eleven onwards they are led to believe that their immediate goal ought to be to do whatever is necessary to get them into university - to go to school every day, to do their homework, to revise for tests, to get good marks in exams, and to stay on at school until they are eighteen.

Even though children who do not succeed in getting into university are told that they can train for 'vocational' qualifications, it is made pretty clear to them that they have failed, and that they are expected to endure a second-class existence for the rest of their lives. It is a rare individual who is able to retain their self-respect and self-confidence in the face of this conditioning and, as a result, these prophesies often prove to be self-fulfilling - many people who do not go to university do indeed fail to fulfil their true potential, thereby strengthening the myth about the value of a university education.

Any institution that appears to thrive on such elitism deserves to be examined very closely indeed, and yet universities have largely managed to escape critical examination over recent years - there have been plenty of calls to make them more available to more people, but relatively few questions asked about the nature of the education that they provide, and the way in which they provide it. In an attempt to address this lack, here are listed some of the conclusions that I have drawn about the myths and legends that surround university life, based on my own personal experience:

The Social Life: I went to school in the 1960s and it was always pretty clear to me that there were things going on in the outside world much more interesting than what was taking place within the confines of my school classroom. When I went to university I had no desire to restrict my social life to a group of people who were essentially as disorientated and homesick as myself, and a few weeks after the start of my first term, I moved out of university accommodation, and took up residence in a house shared by young people who represented a healthy cross-section of society, and none of whom, except myself, were students. From this privileged standpoint, university social life did not look particularly attractive: it was characterised by excessive drinking, traumatic relationships, and insecurity - particularly in the first two years when young people were bewildered by being suddenly displaced from their homes and the people who loved them.

Educational Opportunity: I went to university at the age of 18, after 14 consecutive years of compulsory schooling. At that point in my life, I doubt that there was anything that I was less interested in than education. I was not alone in this position and the ethos of the university was one of the staff ushering the students through prescribed courses, rather than students being engaged in the unrestricted pursuit of knowledge.

Educational Excellence: For the first two and a half years that I spent at university, I did the minimum required to ensure that I would not be asked to leave; I then realised that it was my own time that would have been wasted if I left without a degree and I therefore moved back into university accommodation so that I could engage in some serious study. I covered three years' work in one term, and walked away from the university with a good degree. This taught me that universities have not really achieved educational excellence at all - I was able to cover three years' work in three months because the motivation came from myself. At present, students are only fulfilling a fraction of their true potential because university courses are not designed to cater for self-motivated people.

Expert Tuition: Now that I have had thirty years to reflect on my university education, I am amazed that anything could really be described as a course of higher education when it was restricted to such a narrow field as biochemistry. My course included no study of foreign languages, no music, no art, no drawing, no study of literature, no real philosophy, no serious study of mathematics, no history, no politics, no practical skills, no crafts, no cooking, no gardening, no building, and no reflection about what would be a good way of using knowledge and skills gained through education. All these lacks are justified on the grounds that modern subjects are so complex that specialisation is now necessary, but my experiences over the past few years have taught me that this is not true. Since starting to teach my own children at home, I have done all the things that I never did at university - from studying ancient history to learning foreign languages - and I have realised that the notion of specialisation is nothing more than a smokescreen designed to obscure a lack of learning. I do not regret having studied science at university, but scientific knowledge on its own is unbalanced and potentially dangerous. Presumably the same is true of other courses which focus on such things as English or history, without allowing students to get to grips with the complexity of modern science - and of course the fact that many students leave university without learning how to fix their cars, change a tap-washer, or bake a cake, has always been a source of annoyance for the less well-paid sections of society who are expected to do these jobs for them.

Educational Resources: The most significant educational resource possessed by a university is a well-stocked library. The cause of education would be furthered much more effectively if money was spent on establishing huge libraries, open to everyone, instead of on developing universities, which are necessarily restricted to a few.

It must be noted that books are much more affordable now than in the past, and it is possible that students would get better value for money by spending their limited resources on books rather than on expensive university tuition fees.

Qualifications: Historically, universities were purely educational institutions and were not involved in the business of providing qualifications. This has changed over the past hundred years, and now many people go to university specifically to get a qualification that will enable them to move on to well-paid employment. Both the ethics and efficiency of this arrangement are open to question, but perhaps what should concern the individual student is how it effects them personally.

Now that I have had time to reflect upon the choices that I have made in my own life, I would have to admit that when I was seventeen years old and applying for university courses, I really had no idea of what I was letting myself in for: if, by chance, I had plumped for a course, such as medicine, which is essentially a training course, instead of biochemistry, which at that time still aspired to simple academic excellence, then my freedom of choice from that point on would have been dramatically curtailed. I believe that much the same can be said for most young people who go to university: fourteen years of school attendance does not allow a young person to get to know themselves, and going straight from school to an intense training programme for a particular job, inevitably leads to many university graduates being shunted into work that they do not truly love and in which they are never really happy.

Examinations and Degrees: Perhaps examinations are necessary for courses that lead on to specific employment, such as medicine or engineering, but they effectively kill universities as educational institutions. Freedom and education are inextricably linked - everyone who reads a book has the right to have their own opinion about that book; once one person dictates what another person should think about it, then the process ceases to be education and starts to become brain-washing. This is precisely what happens when examinations and assessment are introduced into university life - students are rightly worried that if their work fails to reflect the views and the methods of their teachers, they will not do well in their examinations. This does not foster original thought and, consequently, even though universities have managed to monopolise further education they have failed to become the driving force behind innovation, entrepreneurialism, or wealth creation in our society.

Taking a Lead in Society: Universities are supposed to train people to become good citizens, able to take a lead in government and important institutions. One of my biggest personal complaints against universities is the degree to which they fail to do this. My second degree was in applied plant sciences, and even though I was only twenty-two years old at the time, it was clear to me even then that an agriculture based upon mechanisation, and the escalating use of fertilisers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides was simply not a good idea. However, whenever I and my fellow students raised concerns about pollution, deterioration of the soil, crop quality, etc. our teachers responded by reiterating the scientific justifications for modern agricultural methods, and gave us to understand that none of us had any choice but to accept the system as it was.

Since then, I have witnessed the growth of the organic food movement, which has been led, on the one hand, by organic farmers and gardeners who were not prepared to submit to the current agricultural dogma, and on the other by customers who did not accept assurances about conventionally-produced foods. Initially, organic products were submitted to ridicule from every side - not least from university professors - but when supermarkets realised that there was money to be made, a rapid change of heart took place. Perhaps it is commendable that universities now have courses in organic agriculture, but the fact is that on this important issue they followed where others led, and in doing so lost any claim to moral authority. I have seen no evidence to suggest that they have fared any better on the other important issues of our times.

The lessons that I learnt by going to university were not, perhaps, the lessons which my teachers intended to teach me, but nevertheless they were important, and have served me well in later life. However, just as my parents aspired to a better education for their children than they were able to have themselves, I believe that it is appropriate for me, and for people of my generation, to aspire to a better education for our children than we were able to have ourselves.

Today's parents can do much better than telling their children that their main aim in life should be to go to university. In today's world, educational opportunities come in all shapes and forms: following the trend of going to university may appear to be the easiest option, but in the long run it is unlikely to prove to be the best.

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