OK, so when did the purpose of education become a hard-nosed process of steering as many students as possible in the direction of loads of money? Climb aboard at the age of five and head straight for the door covered in pound signs. Your path will be marked with numbers and equations and scientific experiments, but the fat financial reward will make it all worthwhile.
Will you lose a few things on the way – music, art, languages, a sense of history and the global perspective of geography? Yeah, well, maybe, but what the hell…The price of progress? As EmCee sang so convincingly in Cabaret, “Money makes the world go around…” does it not?
Certainly a lot of people – influential, powerful souls – seem to believe it. And perhaps who can blame them if the life that the nation would like to lead – great NHS, trains on time, decent roads, care for the growing army of the elderly – is likely to be horrendously expensive? And if earning a lot of money is the real goal, then it’s no wonder we now have very public and positively forensic examination of how that might be done.
The latest answer is to confine your studies as rapidly as possible to science, mathematics and engineering. These are the star performers in the money-stakes. And when you’ve done that, then find out which is the best university to help you on your way.
In our information-rich age, you can find out what new graduates earn in every discipline a university offers and in every university in the land – and beyond, because if you had the time and inclination (and perhaps an intern?), you could find the numbers for every university in the universe and it would be no surprise to find that American universities score pretty highly in employment figures for their fledgling graduates.
‘When did the purpose of education become a hard-nosed process of steering as many students as possible in the direction of loads of money? ‘
A headline in today’s (British) newspaper: ‘Within a year of graduating, dentists earn £31,000 a year.’ It’s quoted not so much to encourage everyone in Year 13 to start practising with mini-drills, as to offer an indicator of what young people should study if they want a good salary. Which, of course, they will need if they are to pay off the enormous debt a degree will generate even in this country, thanks to every university deciding that a degree is a degree wherever it is won, so they all charge the same fees, even though the likelihood of an Oxford degree earning you a better salary than a nominally similar degree from, say, Wrexham University seems, to me at least, quite remote. It is, as they say, complicated.
But you can’t complain about lack of info.
What is the price of university?
In my own headship days, I was the last resort for an American father whose daughter had been with us just a year and wanted to go to a British university. She was severely dyslexic – not a problem today, I know, but in the not too distant past a real stumbling block, universities not then having discovered that dyslexic students might actually be very bright indeed, often in surprising ways.
Anyway, I explained that she was unlikely to find a place. Father was furious. He ranted, “What is it with you Brits? Everyone goes to college – she has to go to college. In America, dozens of colleges would take her. I know she’s not academic, but she deserves a place just like the next kid!”
At the time, in Britain, academic expertise was the sine qua non of going to university – you could not get in without passing quite tough A-level exams at the end of a two-year course, no course work. Tasks like five essays in three hours on some very big books – try The Mill on the Floss, all of it, without a handy exam board-produced study guide.
I said going to university was about, you know, studying – for which his lovely daughter was ill-equipped.
“No, it’s not,” he replied. “It’s about graduating. And every kid should be able to do that.”
Maybe he talked to his MP, because in due course the British government adopted the same view. If the old universities could not accommodate all students, then create new ones which could, with courses on wild and wonderful disciplines such as golf course management. But always – in an almost sinister fashion – the government talked about money. Graduates in the old days earned more than non-graduates. Everyone wanted more money. So let’s make everyone a graduate – bingo! More loot! Just like that! Because earn more is what graduates do. And because they will earn more for the rest of their lives, they can afford to pay for the privilege of going to university! And in a wonderfully egalitarian, not to say monopolistic, way, the universities will all charge the same fees, because to do otherwise would imply a hierarchy of universities and you can’t have that, can you?
Don’t answer that. But note that we do seem to have arrived at a place where cash is king and it’s all wonderfully Tom Cruise and showing us the money.
‘It’s not really all about the money. It’s about playing to your own strengths, and fulfilling your heart’s desire.’
Or telling young people where to find it – for instance, an Imperial College London graduate is, after six months, likely to be earning £30k, whereas an Aberystwyth graduate is likely to be bringing home £16k. The dentists in the headline I quote are followed with a list of who is best paid six months after finishing their studies: chemical engineers, economists, other graduates of science and maths-related subjects. The article quotes The Times Good University Guide, which also tells us social workers get about £26k a year, and ‘Arts graduates are notorious for being badly paid.’ Apparently dance, drama, art and design, and music account for seven of the bottom 10 courses for earnings. ‘Dance, drama and cinematics graduates had the lowest median starting salary at £12,000.’
I could weep. No wonder schools are adapting to the commercial pressure. Teach what they need – does Gradgrind come to mind? And yet, and yet… I remember a heaven-sent trip to see Cabaret at Washington’s Kennedy Centre this summer. The performance was magical and memorable, as was the building itself – I know, a grand and glorious product of the efforts of mathematicians and architects and engineers.
But never mind the performance, read the very walls of the Kennedy Centre, and you will find inspiration – and ammunition – if you want to rally to the cause of the arts, in schools, in universities, in life itself. Kennedy said, “I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all our citizens…an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength, but for its civilization as well.”
You see, it’s not really all about the money. It’s about playing to your own strengths, and fulfilling your heart’s desire and becoming Billy Elliott instead of Bill Gates if that is where your talent lies. It’s about the arts as well as the sciences. And in the end, it’s about civilization itself.
Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former Head and former National Director of Boarding Schools Association.