The growing proportion of young people in the United Kingdom attending university is a victory. In England, prior to the introduction of tuition fees, around 49% of young people attended a university and since then the percentage points have – miraculously – only fallen by a few. Does it matter that more and more graduates are competing for graduate jobs? Does it matter that my degree will be of ‘diminished value’?
The invisible fact that the large number of people decrying the rising number of university attendees are missing is that these numbers are not drawn from a sudden explosion in rich and middle class young people attending university, but from areas that never previously attended university, or thought they could. Women, who until the 70s made up minorities on university campuses, are now the majority. Minority backgrounds and working class communities are now sending their second and third generations to universities, and the rising number of university graduates is a celebration of that success. Going back to a world of minority university attendance would necessarily cut into those numbers.
But beyond that, university students are constantly told they’re ‘not doing it right’. We don’t study hard enough, or take enough internships. We’re picky or messy, constantly drunk, oversexed and irresponsible. First of all – bullshit. Interact with university students for fifteen minutes and you meet a crowd of engaged, bright young people, eager to do good, to do something and to know everything. Second of all – who cares? I don’t care if you’re in Viper every night, or have slept with as many people as YikYak claims to have. I don’t care if you’re failing your classes or still don’t know where your lectures are because you’ve never been. Being at university itself is a valuable experience. Here you learn to be independent, physically and intellectually, in a way you can’t through any other mechanism, even if you went into work straight after secondary school.
Universities are communities of – largely – young people who are allowed to experiment, to succeed or fail on their own merits, without societal supervision. It’s for this reason that universities are drivers of social change and bastions of liberalism to where the vulnerable can escape. Even a semester of Film that you don’t pay much attention in probably gives you a better critical understanding of how media affects your life than you would have if you’d gone straight into work. Doing Politics for a year, and being around other people who care about politics, probably makes you better able to understand how elections affect your life and makes you better able to project yourself into a political world that determines how your life is controlled.
There is value in non-university educations and I wouldn’t suggest that there isn’t, but growing demand for university degrees from employers means growing demand for university degrees from students. Those who tell us that this is a crisis or damaging to students and the UK have got the wrong end of the stick. The normalisation of a university education solves a collective action problem through which we would all benefit from everyone having university educations, but few are willing to shoulder the costs of someone else’s benefit in the labour market.
My degree isn’t of diminished value just because more people have access to it, just like how my dinner doesn’t taste less sweet because more human beings than ever before have access to the nutrition they need. More people having something doesn’t make it worth less. Having a more highly-educated and innovative population makes it more likely that jobs will be created by that innovation, more likely I’ll one day work doing something cool, more likely that one of you is going to invent that jetpack I was promised.
Even if more people attending university makes graduate jobs harder to get, or the labour market more difficult to enter, I’m willing to take that hit for the massive benefits of a more critically aware and engaged population. If it takes three hangovers and an ill-advised trip to BBQ Kings to get you writing for a student publication, on the board of a society, hanging out in front of the library selling cakes or reading flyers about International Women’s Week, I’m happy you’re here.
[Bethany Garry – @brgbethany]