Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Never mind the critics or the fees, uni is a gift for life

I was, as is my daily wont, eavesdropping on a conversation on the bus yesterday. And it made my heart sink. The protagonists were two girls in their late teens.

They were talking about their plans for the future. "I got into Glasgow Uni to do English literature," one said. And then, with a notably apologetic tone, "Everyone keeps telling me it's a waste of time but I just want to see if I like it." The other didn't demur, but smiled generously, as if she was willing to back her acquaintance's brave, foolhardy choice.

Over the last year there's been a growing crescendo of voices opining that university is, for most people, no longer worth the time or money. Exorbitant tuition fees and rising youth unemployment make the issue, for some, a no-brainer.

Every time I turn on the TV there's some chap with a trowel in his hand telling me how his naive graduate mates are all envious of his financial and vocational head-start .

And there's rich, successful Alan Sugar, Katie Price or Duncan Bannatyne standing behind him nodding. As we all know, not going to university never done them no harm.

There's no question that for those with a talent for a particular trade, or an aversion to study, university is not a good option. But I worry about this slow cultural downgrading of the value of further education 'for many ordinary people' which the Tories have encouraged.

How many of the current cabinet (65% Oxbridge - it was less than 30% under Labour) have dissuaded their own offspring from university I wonder?

And why is the government so keen on telling the proletariat about the wonder of job-focussed training while throwing money at independent academies which pursue academic excellence?

It reminds me, in an upside down way, of Auberon Waugh's characteristically caustic comments on The Sun newspaper's lambasting of lottery funding for opera.

'If ever The Sun's readers lift their snouts from their newspaper's hideous half-naked women to glimpse the sublime through music...or literature, they will never look at the Sun again," he wrote in 1995. 'It is The Sun's function to keep its readers ignorant and smug.'

As my cabinet-maker grandpa, who went to the library every day to read the newspapers, knew, anti-intellectualism has often been used by the right to stifle the aspirations of the working people so that they stay comfortable, even self-righteous, about remaining in what's so often and meaninglessly described as 'the real world.'

At its best university isn't just about improving career opportunities, it's a gift you can and should benefit from all your life. On a practical level, it's a crash course in cross-class, cross-nation social networking and self-sufficiency - from managing your own tight budget to making sure you have clean knickers every day.

But more importantly, it's the one time in your life when your search to discover who, and what, you want to be will be indulged.

If your choice of subject is motivated by curiosity and love (sounds crazy I know), you'll have the thrill of finding and mastering a subject, and the buzz of accumulating knowledge and passion, an experience which will give you power and confidence among people and institutions all your life. Education should be a weapon FOR the working classes, not against them.

Yes, tuition fees are bloody outrageous (though remember not to think about them until you're earning at least £21,000 a year). But do it properly and university is priceless.

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