The Independent has a headline concerning British graduates spending absurd sums of money on “unused degrees“.
I don’t normally find the Independent annoys me instantaneously (unlike the Daily Fail), but this headline did. Why? Because it made the clear assumption that the only “use” of a degree was in employment. God forbid any of us should actually gain something from learning if it doesn’t lead to more dosh and a promising career… What sort of state are we in when a decent broadsheet values education solely as a means to a career?
OK, let’s forget my obviously archaic notions of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Let’s look at degrees and employment.
On reading on, I found that part of this was based on graduates claiming their employer had never asked for proof of their degree. Does that really mean the employer didn’t value it, or that they just were a bit sloppy about checking up? Lots of places used not to check – it’s not uncommon.
There’s also reference to the content of the degree not being used directly in employment. Well, guess what – that’s always been the case. Even when we are looking at something subject-specific like teaching – do I ever use the content of my maths degree directly in my lessons? No, of course not – what I teach was included within my own A-levels (it is a proper subset of their content, indeed), not anything I covered at university. Of course some areas do use degree content directly, but they’ve always been few and far between.
But saying that the degree content is not used is not the same as saying the university education is not used. That education gives graduates many other attributes – what are called “transferable skills” and “employability skills” in current argot. Here’s a few I got from mine (Cambridge and OU):-
- Resilience and determination – keeping going when things got tough – helpful anywhere
- Taking responsibility for making my own decisions, understanding that one can’t “have it all”
- Planning my own time and workload
- Being able to learn independently (OK, that partly comes from having some shockingly bad lecturers – every cloud has a silver lining, eh?)
- The experience of finding maths hard – I’d be a much worse teacher without that
- Critical reading
- The ability to produce an extended piece of writing
- Working with others, even if they are very different to me
- A better understanding of the difficulties and challenges others face
- How to be a little kinder and more tolerant
Now I think most of those things are pretty useful in a job, and indeed pretty useful in life. They are more immediately useful than my ability (such as it is) to remember how to prove the Central Limit Theorem.