what is the point of University?

According to the Grauniad today is A level results day and so a time when a lot of people will be thinking about going to university. So it seems a good time to think about what is the point of a university in today’s world, and what is the point of going to university?

The most common answer to ‘what is the point of going to university’ for school leavers is

to get a (better) job, innit?

Slightly to my shame this was the primary reason I started at Imperial in 1979, studying Physics. No decision is single-valued – my grammar school selected those with the most promising O and expected A level results and strongly promoted the idea of going to university for them, about 10% of the sixth-form applied. The past really is a different country, eh? However, this had much in common with the experience of Reue and Joe – it was just kind of expected of those with a more academic leaning. The nascent Ermine was unaware of some other influences. The late 1970s were a time of massive political hatred of academic elitism, particularly in the form of grammar schools, and rather than get turned into a comprehensive school mine had decided to try and become a fee-paying independent school. [ref]I had been lucky enough to apply and get in under the grammar school system – my parents would never have been able to pay fees[/ref]

To make itself more attractive to fee-paying parents the school needed to improve its university enrolment and get some people to Oxford and Cambridge It appears I applied to Oxford first. Although I did okay on the Oxford entrance exam subject papers I was nowhere near bright enough generally for it, and failed the general knowledge test abjectly with a ‘gamma’. Out of a sixth form of about 75 in total, about 10-20 people applied to university, and about four or five to Oxbridge. The school even paid for the prospective candidates to go take a look at the university towns in some sort of minibus trip.

Somewhere in the dreaming spires of Oxford in 1978. I was pretty talentless as a phtogapher, I have improved the composition of this by cropping out the primary subjects artistically set against that blank wall on the left, though I left the jaunty angle :)
Somewhere in the dreaming spires of Oxford in 1978. I was pretty talentless as a 17 y.o. photographer, I have improved the composition of this by cropping out the primary subjects (a couple of schoolmates) set against that blank wall on the left, though I left the jaunty angle 🙂

I think about eight of us did actually go to university. Most people fell on getting the A level grades. I recently checked mine[ref]it’s a strange feeling to think that I could throw the certificates out now. It seemed to matter so much once. I’m not saying they have no value, but the only persistent value is how the studies changed me, not the physical record of the results, which is now valueless[/ref], I got an A in physics, a B in maths and chemistry, and a D in further maths. That sounds really terrible and shit-for-brains now, but remember that I took these subjects under the old norm-referencing system.  In researching what the hell this actually meant I came across this Parliament report, which brazenly relates how the system was bastardised in 1984.

In 1963, the Secondary School Examination Council [SSEC] issued guidelines for a 5 level scale, indicating roughly the proportions of candidates to be awarded each grade: 10 % A, 15 % B, 10 % C, 15 % D, 20 % E and a further 20 % allowed an O level pass. One of the major problems with this approach was that it specified proportions of candidates […].

This system is sometimes described as norm referencing. In a norm referenced system, the assumption is that the numbers taking the exam are sufficiently large to ensure that standards will not vary greatly from year to year; therefore a given percentage will achieve an A grade, another given percentage a B grade and so on. Norm referencing was set up as a way of identifying the most successful candidates, but it is an unfair means of assessing the performance of schools and, perhaps more importantly, of individuals.

I can only say bollocks[ref]for a better informed critique from within the academic world see Atherton J S (2011) Doceo; Against criterion referenced assessment retrieved 15 August 2013 from http://www.doceo.co.uk/heterodoxy/criterion.htm[/ref] to that last highlighted clause. My A level results pretty unequivocally place me in upper 10% of my cohort for Physics, and in the upper quarter for Maths and Chemistry, and marginally above average for Further Maths. Pretty damn clear and unequivocal, and in agreement with my abilities. Oxford and Imperial’s admissions tutors could see that it was reasonable for me to apply to read Physics (Natural Science in the case of Oxford, because they are peacocks and don’t do individual sciences) because, well, I was better than 90% of A level takers. Which is presumably why both offered me an interview and entrance test in the case of Oxford. There’s also the red warning light that I was running at the upper limit of my aptitude in Maths with that crap Further maths result, which was to show at Imperial, where I flunked second-year maths. To this day I have no idea of how to solve differential equations by substitution.

Physics intake 1979/80. Oy vey, look, no girls!  I was too cheap to buy the official photo, so I snuck this copy off the notice board and developed the film in digs
Imperial College Physics intake 1979/80. Oy vey! hardly any girls! I was too cheap to buy the official photo, so I snuck this copy off the notice board and developed the film in digs

So what is the point of going to university? Well, for me it was

  1. to learn how to learn
  2. to meet a wider range of people
  3. to make long-standing friendships
  4. to learn how to run a household in a protective environment, first in halls and then digs
  5. a rite of passage in turning from a teenager to a young adult
  6. to learn how to manage money
  7. to hear a lot of different musical tastes
  8. to get drunk a lot
  9. to hook up and find a lifelong partner are you kidding – studying physics in a joint with about 5% girls!

Oh yes, I suppose I did pick up something about Physics along the way. Hardly ever used it for work. Indeed, it was more learning how to learn and how to process and analyse data which came in more useful in my engineering career. How to separate your variables, not infer the general from the particular, and to try and avoid mistaking correlation for causation.

What came as a surprise to me, however, is this

The primary purpose of a University was not teaching students.

It was to do research[ref]I believe this still is the primary purpose of a University, but I’ve been out of the loop for so long I’m not sure any more[/ref]. To go into the Unknown, and drag a bit of it back and make it the Known

Teaching undergraduate students in particular, is a combination of helping pay the rent and wages, and an intellectual loss-leader. Some of those students will be bright enough to advance knowledge if they progress to original research, and you need new blood – one’s twenties is an incredibly creative and fiery time, where you can have tremendous focus and intensity, while also your intellect comes fully on stream for the first time. Even at a distance of thirty years that I can recall that intensity, the heated discussions in the Physics coffee lounge in the basement where passionate discussions were had about arcana as if it really mattered to us, over cheap plastic cups of ropey instant coffee from a machine.

I gained poise, balance and the ability to direct my effort better as I got older, but in my twenties sheer intellectual energy blazed brighter than it did before or since. I wasn’t bright enough to add anything to the sum total of human knowledge, so I graduated and eventually started work. But I posit that it is the job of University to find those than can add to the sum total, nurture that burning fire, channel it, teach it how to learn and inquire, guide it and then set it to adding to the total experience and awareness of humanity.

I looked at that in terms of Physics, but it applies equally in terms of the humanities, and indeed of any of the subjects that are not overly vocational. For all I know it even applies to Media Studies 😉 I am not Renaissance man enough to know.

Now I am unashamedly academically elitist, not because I am brilliant – I wasn’t, and didn’t take an academic line, undergraduate was about the high-water mark for me academically [ref]I did later do an MSc in Electronics and Information Technology, but that isn’t particularly academic, more vocational IMO[/ref]. But because it helped me, paradoxically precisely because I didn’t have parental advantage in terms of money. It matched me to work where I could add more value. I probably paid for my entire career at The Firm in what I added in the Olympics project in the last 3 years, after I’d gotten the message they wanted their old gits out. Presumably I did something for them in the previous two decades 😉 It gave me the opportunity to work in industrial research, which is where I wanted to be, even at Imperial I realised I wasn’t up to academic research and wouldn’t have had the taste for it anyway. And I’ve certainly paid more than my £50k worth back to the Treasury[ref]in real terms – £50k seems to be the going rate for ‘going to uni’ at the moment[/ref] in terms of higher rate tax over the years before I discovered pensions and early retirement as a way to take a bite out of the tax take.

I wasn’t sharp enough to contribute to the primary role of a university, which is to add to the sum total of human knowledge, but Imperial helped me contribute to a different part of the British economy, as it sifted for excellence to help its primary role.

The environment has changed, but the point of university still isn’t to get you a better job, at least from the University’s point of view. However, because of the shocking increase in fees caused by the hugely increased enrollment target, the incidental possibility of a better job matters more to potential undergraduates. Because you’ll be paying for it.

Britain does university well[ref]Times World Higher Education ranking 2013 by function and by reputation. and the Shanghai ranking (ARWU) Look at Oxbridge up there in the top ten in all three cases, with support from my alama mater Imperial College in the TWHE function rankings. Britain has a population of a fifth of the US, so even in a US/UK contest you’d only expect two out of the top ten slots to go to the UK. The fact that the world is fighting both countries shows that Greg’s comment stands up to scrutiny when he says “Education is one of the things we do well here – we punch hugely above our weight in research” [/ref], for historical reasons, but it is running down its store of capital there, because the enormous increase in enrollment has placed massive costs and loads on the infrastructure. The point of university still isn’t to give you an undergraduate degree, though that’s a useful byproduct. It does that to find the people who will broaden the sum total of human knowledge. It’s why society has institutions of higher learning – where else are we going to go to do that? I am deeply grateful that the human genome was sequenced by government-sponsored university research which stuck a spanner in Craig Venter’s works, because I suspect he would have patented key parts of it[ref]the temptation is there – in a rare outbreak of common sense the US Supreme Court pissed on the fireworks of litigating toe-rags Myriad thusly: “A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated”. Too bloody right, just like I can’t patent the blue of the sky or the design of a robin redbreast.[/ref].

There may be ways to address the desire for a higher proportion of first degrees in the population, hopefully without hammering the personal finances of the degree-takers. MOOCs may be an answer, the Open University is another model. We used to have institutions that addressed the need for vocational qualifications that started to expand into first degree qualifications without the research facilities, they were called polytechnics. Two of our European neighbours, Germany and Switzerland, still have effective non-degree level higher education, and it seems to be working very well for them, and means their young people don’t have to slaughter their personal finances to get a foot on the jobs ladder.

Your student debt is not a debt, it is a greater liability to tax in future

One of the worst things that the Con-Dem government did to prospective students is failing to take the opportunity to change the framing of their greatly increased charges for higher learning. Nick Clegg did say sorry 😉 He could at least have tried to change the terminology away from the dreaded term student debt.

It’s left to poor old Martin Lewis from MoneySaving Expert to bang the drum for the changes which should have transformed the word debt into tax. Nobody wants to pay more tax, but it’s less bad than feeling that you start off in the world of work with a £50,000 debt. This normalises debt in the minds of our young people – what’s a £1000 credit card debt compared to a £50,000 student debt? It’s very different because the conditions are very different, in terms of the ability to call the debt in, whether it appears on your credit score or ability to get a mortgage, but most importantly you won’t have to pay it before you are earning over £21,000.

All that doesn’t matter, because it’s asking a hell of a lot of someone who is just starting out in life to be able to qualify these differences and assess whether they will get a return on their investment. I would have seen that headline figure, and the word debt, and run the other way. According to the LSE via GraduateFog getting a 2:1 means you’ll probably earn £81,000 more over your working life than if you didn’t have that.

Now if that were an investment proposition I’d leave it on the table – the chance of that £81,000 costs you over £50,000 right off the bat, so your ROI is 62% – over 40 years, and you better not retire early, because the high-hitting years are probably in the latter half. That’s 1.5% p.a.[ref]I’m assuming that the LSE has corrected the £81k to real money, because if not it’s virtually worthless[/ref] – forget it, stick your 50k in a S&S ISA, or use it towards your first house to save you paying rent.

Look at the whole picture – it isn’t an investment proposition

I’m not quite as hard line as Monevator’s university has now become an unaffordable luxury. or even Mr Money Mustache’s non-degree alternatives including skilled trades. That would short-change the offering society is making to you. Look at the whole picture. There are two ways to take the offering –

The academic proposition

First, ask yourself honestly how academically gifted you are. Previous generations had the honesty of norm-referencing to tell them unequivocally. Unfortunately two generations of lily-livered parents shouted that sort of thing down because they wanted to see more A grades, because it made them and their kids feel better. However, you’ll probably know roughly where you stand relative to your class. You probably want to be in the upper 25% to get the best from the university experience as an academic proposition.

It offers you something you can’t get anywhere else – the possibility to run your mind at 110%, to bounce ideas off your peers – to think in the fast lane. I was able to grasp things that I wouldn’t otherwise – even things like how Einstein’s thought model of riding a beam of light led him to relativity and the speed-of-light limitation [ref]I’m not claiming to be anywhere near as clever as Einstein – even following the train of thought is a stretch, and it’s much easier to follow an idea someone else has articulated compared to originating it[/ref].

don't snap one of these in half to try and get a N pole. I tried it as a kid but had to go to university to find out why it doesn't work
don’t try and  snap one of these in half to try and get a N pole on its own. I tried it as a kid but had to go to university to find out why it doesn’t work. The blighters are brittle and smash rather than break

I understood Green’s theorem for a short while (the duration of the lecture, roughly), and why one of Maxwell’s equations[ref]div B = 0, since you ask[/ref] denies the possibility of finding a North pole on a magnet unassociated with the South pole. If you take a cold chisel to a bar magnet, then a new pair of N and S poles appear as if by magic on the cut bits just to piss you off. I discovered this as a child snapping a Eclipse horseshoe magnet on the hole for the string.

You’re unlikely to find that intellectual concentration at any other time in life, and in your twenties is a special time for that anyway. It’s an experience I wouldn’t have wanted to miss, though at times it was depressing because I observed at first hand the hard limits of my capacity to comprehend things that other people were able to. That can be a sucker punch to one’s self-esteem. I still recall the lecture hall and classwork in second year with those differential equations, and how at least half the class could see what they needed to substitute the variables for, and I could see no rhyme or reason behind it. I had reached my intellectual high-water mark in maths, and it was short of the required grade.

You don’t forget the energy and electricity of that time. I knew some friends who did PPE at UCL, and going for a drink with them they had a similar electricity when the topic of conversation got onto stuff that sounded like a combination of random noise and pretentious claptrap to me. But it mattered – to them. And they had more girls at UCL 😉

You may be the Right Stuff to go on into research. I wasn’t, but the intellectual sparks increase from what I overheard, and the ride seems even more exciting, though not without its frustrations too. Along with the really bad dress sense and strange hair at times. It’s a different world, but there must be something good about it to make up for the job insecurity and crap pay.

Oh yes. Take up the academic proposition and you will probably get the 2:1 if you can make the bar. That should hopefully allow you to pass go and collect the LSE £81,000 graduate premium if you work for 40 years. At the moment the jobs market is in a bad space but it should improve. I graduated in the midst of the 1982 recession but did get a job, though I had to take a non-degree one for six months at first, and my second was only marginally a degree level position. Finding a graduate-level job in a recession is a bastard and may involve intermediate steps 😦

The academic proposition also includes –

The social and self-development proposition

uni is about more than study :)
uni is about more than study 🙂

You don’t suddenly change to an adult on your 18th birthday. It took me to about 25 and there are some aspects where I still haven’t cracked it at twice that 😉 Uni offers you somewhere to become a different person, and to explore who and what you are. That explosion of potential in your 20s and the lack of things that tie you down means this is a special time of self-development and becoming self-aware. Even if you flunk the exams these steps along the journey of individuation will change you, and doing that without the ties of work makes it easier to do. Unfortunately this journey isn’t simply a straight-line journey towards the light – the angst and ennui of teenage years doesn’t simply fall away as soon as you leave home.

There’s a lot to be said for the experience of going to university. It’s very formative and a rite of passage that will change you forever and be a lifelong memory, hopefully a happy one in the round. However, it is a damned expensive experience, and because you don’t know what your earning pattern is going to be it is hard to qualify the financial impact. For most people, however, paying upfront or even getting parental assistance to pay upfront isn’t going to be the right way to do that – consult Martin Lewis’s guide for why that parental assistance is probably best set towards buying a house rather than the cost of uni.

I learned something writing this

I was of the view that it’s all gone to pot, but I’m not sure now. On the downside, our criterion-referenced exams do give us less information than the norm-referenced ones before. They compress everything up at the top end, so they can show those with a total lack of aptitude but can’t discriminate between the able, the talented and the brilliant.

On the upside, five times more more people can go to university than in my day, and university is about more than the qualifications. We haven’t got that much smarter in the intervening three decades; if half of 18-year olds go to university then undergraduate intake is for those of average academic ability and up, by definition. This includes the people who would have passed the old exams, plus four times as many people who wouldn’t have passed.  We didn’t have to bugger up the exams – merely set the offer criteria to all Ds in old money. However, the change means there’s no way of telling which are which on entry, which saves the blushes of the less able. There is a hit on the universities, where crabby old gits grouch about nobody being able to do maths any more. I would probably pass that second year 😉

On the downside, all of a sudden there’s a paywall instead of an examwall and a hell of a lot is demanded of prospective students’ financial nous in the face of uncertainty, and the language used (student debt) is terrible.

Teenagers have unrealistic wage expectations. This is entirely as it should be – if you can’t be optimistic as a teenager with it all to play for then when can you be? However, it means they will overestimate the cost of university. It is probably a lot more affordable than they think, and nowhere near as expensive as the headline price. If you experience significant career progression in your 40s then reducing your student loan costs is a pretty good incentive to put more in your pension 😉 And if you start right off the bat on that expected £60k salary, well, it probably was a worthwhile investment so take the hit…

The experience of ‘uni’ has been opened to a lot more people. This was a clear desire of the community and politicians, so perhaps the right answer has been had. What is threatened IMO is the university system, since its primary purpose still  isn’t to award degrees, it is to expand human knowledge. A load of distracting noise and hum has been added to that function by pushing five times as many undergraduates through the system. Maybe we need to ask whether what we are asking universities to do still squares with their primary function. An industrial civilisation that throws sand in the works of its ability to further research, particularly non-commercial research, is playing with the fires that powered its initial success.

21 thoughts on “what is the point of University?”

  1. Terrific post and one I agree with wholeheartedly. As someone who has (bizarrely) ended up with degrees in classics and mathematics, I have not really used either directly in my working life (although they have helped me to get jobs), but now in early retirement, I feel I’ve greatly benefitted from both (one of my hobbies is researching ancient science and maths).

    It is for each person to make their own choices. University helps to make you the person you are and it is the person who gets the job and has the career, not just an embodiment of a set of qualifications.

    Nowadays, I don’t think that the repackaging of polytechnics as universities was a bad thing, since it enables higher education to exist along an academic/vocational spectrum that gives a greater diversity.

    The top academic universities will still be able to find the research stars and the top vocational ones will continue to produce the service oriented graduates upon which mostly society depends and somewhere in between new developments take place. Some institutions will fail or be forced to adapt, but that’s life.

    A target of 50% graduates is quite reasonable, IMO, in a society where most working lives will go on to 70. It doesn’t matter that nearly all of them won’t be research grade, but most of them should have a good time.


  2. Nice post! I went to Uni in the Eighties, but I think there’s no way I would go now to study the History and English that I did. I was on a full grant, my parents didn’t earn enough to contribute much and I know they would have fainted at the prospect of incurring any debt outside of a mortgage. I’m sure they would have advised me not to go and would probably have felt that University wasn’t for families like ours.
    I reckon my son (accepted into Uni to study maths today) will have about 60k to pay back for his four year degree. It’s worth repeating. Sixty Thousand Pounds. (Just after I started work I borrowed £1,000 and it took me three years at £30 a month to pay it back!) It is an immense amount of money, totally daunting, any way you dress it up. I tell myself that maths might get him a decent job, but History and English? As people used to say to me, so you’ll be a teacher then? With a debt of sixty grand in my twenties? No way would I have risked university.


  3. @SG

    University helps to make you the person you are and it is the person who gets the job and has the career

    I like it, and looking back I think we are in danger of losing sight of that at times.

    The pressure on universities seems ot be the physical infrastructure issues of handling all those extra people; that costs serious money. I am staggered at the sheer physical size of what the universities I went to has become!

    @Jim I would be the same as you, I wouldn’t have even thought about it with all this talk of debt being bandied about. I wish that clegg had channeled his efforts better – if he couldn’t fight the increase, then he needed to fight to get this called a graduate tax and not a loan.

    It’s a horrible thing for us all to do to your son, IMO to tell him he is £60k in debt, and I commend Martin Lewis’s take on that. I’ve just run your son’s figures through Martin Lewis’s calculator and for him to actually pay back in real terms the £60k loan in 30 years he needs to be earning over £35,000 in today’s money for all those years right off the bat, and never be unemployed.

    Obviously I wish him well and hope he does get to pay the full whack ;), in which case you could argue the fees are a reasonable investment. However, if he falls on hard times, this is a debt that stops chasing him, without repercussions.

    It’s very different from anything else we know as debt, and it’s really bad that we label this as a huge debt up front. Martin Lewis’s no-win-no-fee university course is a better way of conceptualising it.

    @Monevator, ah, gelatin, good for the fur and claws eh 😉 I started this pretty much on the university is an unaffordable luxury line, but when I researched it I changed my mind. I’m not always a curmudgeonly bastard 😉

    The social development and self-awareness has value, and if that’s all you get out of it you are highly unlikely to pay full rate for the experience. I got a crappy grade as an undergraduate because I suffered a non-academic crisis in the third year, which is why I had to do the MSc to fix that.

    If I had to do it again, even knowing that would happen, I would, and if it cost 50k in today’s money that would still be a better financial investment than, say, my first house 😉

    I’m personally deeply grateful that I faced an examwall rather than a paywall, because that suited my skills, and the graduate premium made the opportunity cost worth it as I cleared my 20s. I didn’t want to project that on what’s now, and I’m really surprised that people don’t acknowledge more the personal transformation aspects of university.

    Whether that’s worth whatever you pay for it is a tough call, and it’s horrible that we make people do such a complex risk-reward calculation so early in life. It seems very easy to end up overestimating the risks 😦


  4. Absolutely superb post.

    I find it remarkable how similar our views are on pretty much everything even though we are at very different positions in life! I’m also pleased you don’t dish out the sour grapes the Guardian does about Oxbridge each year. They have their faults but they really do come under a lot of completely unfair criticism. (Oh and it’s the Fenland Polytechnic of East Anglia that has Natscis, not the other one. 🙂 )

    I find it abhorrent that schools have been turned into exam results factories and I can see universities going the same way. It is repugnant that the government is finding a way to turn the university system into one big market where people weigh up increase in earnings potential vs fees. This is a total misunderstanding of what it is for. Don’t forget, the government is sucking away money behind the scenes – it’s not like universities get more money with the fees system. Look at the labs of these world-leading universities; most are 60’s monstrosities that simply aren’t fit for purpose.

    I totally agree with your proposed terminology of the went-to-university-tax. Calling it a loan makes it sound like they are doing you a favour, rather than just deciding you owe them ludicrous amounts of money. (Oh and I see they have jacked up the interest rates on new loans while no-one was looking. Disgraceful.)

    Similarly, I’m sick of the way researchers have to prostitute themselves to business or constantly grovel for uncertain funding by coming up with “economic cases” for research. The accountants with no spark of imagination have taken over and it is dangerous. I’m still angry from when money was suddenly pulled from my field of research to bail out Rover, whereupon the Phoenix four simply pocketed the money. Listening to politicians claiming they can pick which research will work shows just how foolish they are.

    It’s undoubtedly even worse for people doing humanities. I may be a scientist but I can see the value in making life richer through aesthetics. It takes a remarkable commitment to put up with the bleak future presented to our more creative colleagues. (Not that scientists aren’t creative, just in a different way.)

    However, let’s not forget the people who aren’t the academic type (and I too think about 50% is a reasonable fraction). There needs to be proper training and support for them so they can have a job to be proud of too. Remember, people live and work a lot longer, so spending more time getting into the career ladder is ok!

    The baby boomers have destroyed the social contract and should be ashamed.

    P.S. I had forgotten about that video! Hilarious!


  5. Oh and if you want to feel like Colonel Dedshott listening to Professor Branestawm, see how far you get with this lecture from Tim Palmer. You can treat it like a mental bucking bronco!


    (I don’t claim to have followed all of it! My brain melted when he got to octonians and gravitons.)

    We’re world leaders in this sort of stuff, and I’m scared it is being frittered away by short-sighted unimaginative politicians. We’ve already surrendered the lead in fusion research (JET) to the French (ITER). A pity.


  6. @Greg,
    As a curmudgeonly old git, I have to express my disappointment with the level of agreement in which I find myself with Ermine’s articles and your posts.
    Ermine’s piece was well-balanced covering the self-development and academic aspects as well as the purely financial factors involved when considering a university education.
    I do take issue again with you laying the entire blame at the feet of baby boomers.

    There are many issues:
    a) Grade inflation
    b) Over-expansion of the university system
    c) Unwillingness of the electorate to recognise that if you want high quality public services free at the point of use then you have to pay for them through the tax system
    d) Failure to recognise the real purpose and value of the old university system
    e) Failure to recognise the value of education in itself without regard to immediate applicability of subject matter studied or its relationship with earnings potential
    f) The broader backdrop of a crass, materialistic celebrity culture in which people know the price of everything and the value of nothing
    g) The intrusion of the market into almost every aspect of life
    h) The cult of management in which:

    – excellent practitioners in any field are encourage to become p-poor managers
    – p-poor practictioners are encouraged to become p-poor managers
    – average practitioners are encouraged to become p-poor managers
    and no-one is encouraged and rewarded for being outstanding at what they do and urged to continue in the same role
    i) A failure to sustain the apprenticeship system and to create further vocational training opportunities

    Greg, I didn’t and don’t support any of the above. I blame the generation older than myself – you know the ones who were too young to fight in World War II and think that they should get everything free of charge and not pay any tax because they paid three shillings and sixpence a week in tax and NI forty five years ago. (Tongue in cheek, a little, anyway!)


  7. @Greg The Mash article is great. And summarises much of the Graun’s grizzling. It disturbs me that an Oxford education clearly failed to educate their reporter into the difference between unfairness and inequality. Unfairness can beget inequality, but inequality does not necessarily imply unfairness.

    Mrs Ermine went to the Fenland place 😉

    I didn’t realise that the increased fees are compensating for the government pulling money out! Either way, they really need ot take the opportunity to change the terminology away from debt. It’s probably Tory tub-thumpers who nixed the use of the term graduate tax so they can use the “we don’t increase taxes” line in 2015!

    Interesting point on people living and working longer so it’s okay to take longer to get on the career ladder. There’s something to be said for that, but unfortunately human biology hasn’t shifted fertility to take that into account, it’s the late 20s – early thirties childbearing age that seems to be the hardest on personal finances.

    I’m with GOP in also being a baby-boomer (I think, though tail-end) and I didn’t make the decisions to bugger up the exams, or indeed to expand the enrolment targets. I’d personally support knocking that back to about 25%. Some of the things that are blamed on the baby boomers are wider changes in society. I was also hurt by the increasing household incomes and inflating house prices that was probably a result of more women coming into the workplace; I’m not sure that I did anything to inflate those prices. I don’t propose a return to the 1950s either – a properly working economy needs to use all its talent where possible. Strategically higher house prices may be a result of that because households have more money, though I do wish they’d spend it on other things! I never did and still don’t support the council house right to buy or many of the other methods the government grubs about in the housing market to inflate house prices.

    And at grammar school I grew up with accepting that sometimes exams would tell me I was crap at something, it didn’t destroy my self-esteem unlike the shrinking violets presumed by the equality-of-outcome merchants.

    Academic smarts are good for some things, curiously enough to do with manipulating, marshalling or refining human knowledge and certain kinds of achievement.

    @GOP we need to do something about this excessive outbreak of agreement ;)Particularly your issue h on management. We seem to do this exceptionally badly in the UK – we overrate the value of the executive levels and drive good technical people into management. Observations shows that people who are good with things aren’t always good with people, and the main challenge and opportunity with management is getting the best from people, not the capital plant 😉


  8. Good article ermine, thank you.

    In addition to your list probably the most important thing I got was sense of personal achievement that was solely mine and couldn’t be lost or taken away.

    However I’ve a notion that the effort and skills learned sow the seeds for unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved at the work place. The erratic intense protracted concentration engendered within education for your own benefit, does not serve you well in the wider context of your life.

    I did fairly vocational courses the theoretical basis of which got / get used in paid work and haven’t dated in 20 years, as such it was a good basis for “the work” but not for “working” .

    I don’t recall too many people looking for self actualisation through work (snowball in hell) in the days I spent in factories and warehouses before going to university, but afterwards in the “professional” environment ? Hmmm.

    IIRC Paul Willis in “Learning to labour” was talking about the working class lad culture in secondary schools being a defensive preparation to cope with alienating work. The middle classes don’t seem to have developed something similar, exiting university as cannon fodder with delusions of self actualisation, wreaking harm on themselves (and others if they go into management) for decades until the penny drops.

    TLDR; University is great but the hangover can last decades 🙂


  9. I’m way too busy to say anything intelligent but “There’s something to be said for that, but unfortunately human biology hasn’t shifted fertility to take that into account” prompted me to find this:

    Click to access SF2.3%20Mean%20age%20of%20mother%20at%20first%20childbirth%20-%20updated%20240212.pdf

    While biology hasn’t shifted, we do have the technology so people don’t have to worry about waiting, we’re healthier so we have fewer, and women are thought of as more than child bearers so the age has risen and is still doing so.

    Of course, it is a bit chicken and egg. All bar the most irresponsible factor in whether they can actually provide for their kids before having them!


  10. I looked at the photos before reading the text underneath them and my first thought was ‘wow – loads of women in his year’, but them I put my specs on and looked again to realise that of course most of the ‘women’ were in fact men. I’d forgotten, for a moment, the fab hairstyles we all enjoyed back then…


  11. @Gop A quick response:

    a) (grade inflation) I quite like the old norm referencing system as a method, but I suppose the inflating version is ok as long as you introduce A* (and eventually A++*^2 etc…) to avoid a glut at the top. Don’t forget that performance (in exams) _is_ improving. When people complain about how easy exams are for the youth, I direct them to the Flynn effect. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flynn_effect ) Give the current crop of people IQ tests from 50 years ago and they come out as geniuses!

    b) (too many Uni places) I disagree here; obviously the average ability must come down if we have more people, but the very top is as good or better. As discussed, the purpose of university changed when New Labour overhauled it (though I wish they had _funded_ their overhaul). Seeing as people are working longer, doing better jobs, we should be able to afford this extra effort. Particularly as industry then doesn’t need* to train people so much so should be more profitable.
    * debatable!

    c) (tax whiners) Spot on, particularly of people at the top.

    d) (purpose of Uni) It has changed to something different, except right at the top, but I think that’s ok.

    e) (misunderstanding the value) I agree wholeheartedly. Pretty much everything we have has its roots in blue sky research.

    f) (Crass cheap culture) Too true. 😦 People used to grow up wanting to be an astronaut, now they want to sing other people’s songs on TV. Let me add ‘bling’ and the draw of people into finance careers to that. I respect the guy who arranges the flowers in the park more than the derivatives trader. One makes people’s lives a little bit better, the other is a parasite with delusions of how great they are.

    g) (market for everything) Argh! I hate the religion the free marketeers. Of course a market works well in some circumstances, but most proponents come across as selfish, simple sociopaths to me.

    h) (managers) I don’t quite buy the Peter Principle, ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Principle ) and remember that Excel has replaced a whole layer of management. However, I think the idea that one needs to manage to get ahead is horrible. I like to think of it as follows:
    – Workers make widgets. This is value creation.
    – They need people to find people to sell them to, so all the workers chip in a bit of their salary and give it to “sales people”
    – They need people to come up with improvements and new ideas. The workers chip in another bit of their salary and give it to “R&D” people.
    – They need people to organise everything and make sure it all works together. The workers chip in and pay “managers”.

    There’s no obvious reason to me why that last group should get a bigger slice of the pie or if that job is more difficult, more important, or even comparable. Even if we make the poor assumption that they have a larger effect on the success of the company, as performance isn’t really very related to pay, there’s no particular reason to pay excessive amounts.

    i) (Use of less academic people as unskilled serfs) Totally agree. I think the blame lies with both businesses and government.

    As for which set of people are at fault, that’s a bit of a fruitless exercise I suppose. However, it certainly wasn’t my cohort but we’re going to have to pay for it. A house price crash would be a good start, followed by a glut of (wage) inflation.

    As for my funding cut comment. I can’t find very good data, but here’s a piece from 2011.


    It’s actually worse than all this. Mention “Full Economic Costing” to any scientist to get them spitting feathers (if they are aware of it – many don’t know of that deception).


  12. @Nathan I have that book on order at the library – I also didn’t see any of that ‘work should give meaning to life’ carry-on in my pre-university working either – it was about having a laugh if possible and then all about the weekends!

    I have to admit on the phenomenon of bullshit jobs tickled me as an example of the middle-class problem. After The Firm trashed the esprit de corps with delayering etc they seemed to create a load of BS-mongers to try and keep things on track. I shifted out of software development at The Firm because I was beginning to hate the increasing process overheads. The implementation of Agile was particularly ghastly because it needed. to. be. micromanaged! There was clearly no irony centre in the big cheese when they went that way.

    @Jane, hey, this was the late 70’s 😉

    @Greg the nice thing about norm referencing is that it’s largely auto-calibrating and resists political influence. I absolutely don’t buy the Flynn effect as being indicative of improving intelligence. It’s possible greater exposure to white-collar work and improving standards of basic literacy improve the score on IQ tests. However, I didn’t observe any upswing in intelligence, and to be honest a serious downswing in standards of general education. I’ve had people ask how to calculate a percentage, where do you go for help there?

    I breezed through the Telegraph’s GCSE questions but struggled to work the O level ones out in my head (apparently you are allowed rough paper but I didn’t remember that), so at least in that example there’s a big difference, though I suspect the torygraph is biased anyway. Stylistically the O levels required more inference from ‘real-world’ problems which made them harder.

    Interesting that the general view on this thread seems to be the purpose of university has changed and people are easy with that, I guess overall the fact it has been so enlarged by successive political parties means that does reflect the zeitgeist, and i guess I may as well go along with it then!

    The workers chip in and pay “managers”.

    There’s no obvious reason to me why that last group should get a bigger slice of the pie or if that job is more difficult, more important, or even comparable. Even if we make the poor assumption that they have a larger effect on the success of the company, as performance isn’t really very related to pay, there’s no particular reason to pay excessive amounts.

    I agree – also from the point of view of a company owner in being a shareholder. This is the principal-agent problem and seems to defy any solution. Even if we say the CEO earns no more than 20 times the lowest grade all they will do is outsource the grunts to be able to pay themselves more.

    it certainly wasn’t my cohort but we’re going to have to pay for it.

    agreed, though remember you have a far higher standard of living that I had, you will also live much longer due to improvements in medicine, and indeed the elimination of some of dangerous jobs like mining.

    The improvement in material standard of living is very notable – it happened slowly but steadily. People travel far more, electronic communications are far better, the variety and availability of music and films are far superior to the previous generations. Heating works so much better and is less work. On the downside we’ve made two things that most people want to do harder – buying a house on a single salary, and raising children with the most common model of household employment (both parents working).

    I’d agree that a house price crash would be good, but Help to Buy isn’t pointing in that direction. And I’m sure we’ll get plenty of inflation. whether that’s likely to be associated with wage inflation isn’t clear at the moment, I’d probably lay bets against 😦


  13. re. The Flynn effect, clearly we aren’t genetically better or anything. (If you took a neolithic baby and brought it up now, it would be indistinguishable, apart from being lactose intolerant.) However, we are getting better at taking IQ tests! (It also acts as a counter to the claim that exams are now easy as everyone can take literally the same test!)

    I would claim that the _average_ person is far better equipped for mental work than 100 or even 50 years ago. Remember there used to be a _lot_ of manual jobs. I suspect there might be small effects due to better nutrition, though that probably only matters around near-famine or going 150 or so years back. I would like to think that teaching methods (and possibly teaching methods at home though I don’t know there) have improved significantly over time. If not, why not!?

    Philistine morons like Gove are doing their best to butcher the system and replace it with a Victorian fantasy of blackboards and rote learning. Stephen Hawking is not famous for knowing the names of all the stars; he’s famous for improving our understanding of how the universe works!


    I did the test and the O level questions were indeed far harder. I needed to use paper too, though if I _had_ to do it entirely mentally, I’m sure I would have got there in the end. I did get one wrong where I misread my writing right at the end. (Argh!) I also couldn’t remember how to do long multiplication and had to rediscover it on the fly. If I were 16, I’m sure I would have found them easier as I would have practised.

    It also brings home just how irrelevant those questions all are in modern life. I’m exposed to far more maths than pretty much any worker, some of it extremely tough, and the quiz questions were irrelevant to me. However, their purpose is to show that you can break problems down and think things through until the end. Being capable of doing those proves that you are capable of being trained to solve actual problems in real life. The specific example uses to test doesn’t matter. Therefore, perhaps the GCSE questions are better in that there is less fiddly mental arithmetic and a greater fraction of understanding the method and problem?

    Of course, now everyone does carry a calculator around with them all the time! (That shows you, Mr Carnt!) It is fine to only be able to make estimates to get a feel and then churn the accurate numbers out using a machine.

    I would hope that there is a more real-world lean to GSCE questions and that the questions have been cherry picked.

    Don’t forget the Daily Mailygraph’s target demographic is old men who think the world has gone to pot and that it’s all the fault of young/poor/female/non-landed/foreign/environmentalist people. They are just looking for something to confirm their views, not expand their mind. (Oh and don’t presume that I read the Guardian instead – I think it is silly. 😀 )

    It is easy to pick the entry-level questions from one paper and the advanced ones from the other.


    “In our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it”. Hah! Nice quote! A real shame how carers are treated like crap.


    Your point about the improvement in living standards is quite right, and it is easy to get lost in the doom spread by the media. Life is pretty good! However, if the new generations ever became content with the world and stopped trying to change it, that would be a sure sign of a serious problem!


    Sorry about this being rather haphazard, I’m chucking it together during my breaks…


  14. @ermine – nice link to Strike, enjoyed that article.
    I remember them as B Ark jobs

    ‘Learning to labour’ was one of those defining books for me, It would be interesting to hear if it’s stood the test of time.


  15. @Greg I feel a little bit better about my result in the Torygraph O level comparison now 😉 It was a bear without rough paper!

    You’re absolutely right that hopefully the wellspring of curiosity and enterprise won’t dry up. There seems to be some indication that happiness is the result fo the first derivative of living standards, and it particularly underestimates the value of slow, steady incremental improvements. It still amazes me when I pass a car showroom that I can buy a used secondhand car in great condition for about £5000 and a new one for little over twice that – when I started work in the early 1980s I think a new one was about £15,000 which was a stupendous amount of money then. And they were unreliable as hell despite being much simpler. There’s absolutely no comparison. OTOH driving itself was a lot less stressful with fewer people on the roads.

    The Old Lady was good. The next one on PR was also great!

    @Nathan Strike even got the Economist thinking. They almost suckered themselves into proposing a universal income regardless of work, before they remembered what publication they were!


  16. Hi Ermine,
    I enjoy reading your blog, on and off, and having returned to it after a Summer break I see we are both in the 1979 Imperial Physics photo! I am one of the few women!


  17. Yes, like you I wouldn’t have made the grades! I imagine you might have been given the 3C offer that they seemed to dish out to Oxbridge applicants back in ’79. I also remember being told that the average grades in our cohort were AAB and I had ABB and no Further Maths, so like you, I found aspects of it a bit of a struggle.
    Good to see so many women on the academic staff there – I think there was only one in our day.
    As you say, small world!


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