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.