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More reform is needed to reduce the cultural stigma on low-value degrees

Jonas Balkus
August 11, 2023

Restricting places on university courses is easy, but it does not tackle the mass enrolment of students onto courses which do not lead to good outcomes, or the overcrowding of university in general. Such a restriction will not suddenly encourage students to take up medicine or plumbing apprenticeships instead of criminology or film studies. Rather, it will breed resentment among those who would feel ‘locked out’ of university. A resentment accentuated by the fact that university has been seen, for far too long, as synonymous with advancement in life. A degree in something, anything, is often viewed as infinitely better than even the most useful apprenticeships.

Unfortunately, the job market now shares such a view; many high-end employers wrongfully demand a 2:1 to apply to their best paying jobs, when the skills that such jobs require could be taught through an apprenticeship. Take auditing, for example. Many auditing jobs stipulate a 2:1 in any subject to apply, and once on the scheme you ‘learn on the job’ and take additional qualifications to become a qualified auditor. So why do the first degree if you are doing a de facto apprenticeship after it? Once more employers start requiring a 2:1 or equivalent, then the government can restrict course places without restricting opportunities for many ambitious people.

University students
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This obsession with university partially stems from its surrounding cultural glow. As a recent graduate I can attest to that, and many other graduates would agree. From secondary school onwards you develop a hazy idea of the ‘uni experience’ that becomes more lucid as you edge towards finishing your A-levels. This grows into a full-blown romanticisation of those three years before true adult life begins, full of partying, drinking, and the fun parts of adulthood without any of the boring stuff. And everyone is doing it, so you do not want to be left behind. You see your friends doing it after you leave school, and many people your age, you see it in films and TV, the glorified ‘uni experience’ is ubiquitous.

This is not just damaging to school leavers but also devaluing to universities themselves. They are supposed to be our centres of learning, where students can learn from experts to understand their subject deeply and take that knowledge with them into life. Instead, if the actual learning at university plays second fiddle to its social aspects, it depreciates the quality of learning. 

This is not just damaging to school leavers but also devaluing to universities themselves. Quote

Seminar groups are silent and unproductive because barely anyone has done the reading and even fewer care, while essays and exams are viewed more like hurdles to gaining that sheet of paper which unlocks future job prospects than serious ways to engage with meaningful subjects.

Afterwards, there is an ‘aura’ around being a graduate. In past decades, this would have had more substance; when a minority of people did A-levels, and a minority went to university to do the minority of degree-requiring specialist jobs. But now, with so many jobs requiring a degree, it no longer has much of a bearing. As is often said, the average electrician and pipefitter earn £33,469 and £37,067 respectively, while an anthropology graduate earns £29,000. Nonetheless, the former are less lauded positions, because of residual classism and snobbery regarding manual labour and university. It is a difficult issue to change, but it is what lies at the root of the oversaturation of university and any attempt at substantial reform demands that it should be addressed.

One possible solution could be university specialisation. If we introduce technical institutions which specialise thoroughly in a field which they have developed infrastructure for, then it may help take away the stigma from more practical subjects and training; if Sheffield was the centre for high-quality graphic design courses, or Northumbria for electronics, then perhaps people would not feel any academic degree is better than vocational courses in electronics.

Apprenticeships at these institutions could be run in partnership with local businesses, providing both support to local economies as well as a higher standard of training for our specialised workers. Extensively promoting these schemes would help remake the idea of apprenticeships as inferior to university courses and would go a long way in correcting some of the residual classism in our society. 

The government’s recent plans are a band aid over an open wound. While it is good this issue is at least half-heartedly addressed, genuine change can only be reached by far more ambitious reforms.

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Jonas Balkus is a master's student in International Relations at the University of Oxford, and a recent graduate from Durham University.

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