The unexpected social and economic challenges brought by the coronavirus pandemic have given increased urgency to questions about the purposes of a university education and the kinds of graduates that society needs. Much of this debate has focused on the extent to which university degrees lead to graduate jobs and higher graduate salaries.
For example, in July, UK education secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced that financial support for universities affected by COVID-19 would be conditional on their scrapping courses that did not lead to skilled graduate jobs.
The implication of these announcements is that the central purpose of a university education is to produce employable, high-earning graduates.
My research examines what a university education is for, the principles that should inform its design, and how its quality can effectively be measured. Rather than the employment and salaries of graduates, the central educational purpose of a university education is to transform students through their engagement with knowledge.
When discussing the purpose of higher education, UK politicians often talk about the graduate premium. This is a measure of how much more university graduates earn than those who have not been to university. But there are a number of problems with understanding the quality of a degree in terms of graduate salaries.
Research has shown that employment outcomes are far more of a measure of graduates’ level of social privilege than the quality of their degree. A students’ disability, ethnicity, gender, geographical location and social class will have more bearing on their employment than the particular degree course they study.
Basing the worth of a degree on graduate premiums assumes that higher education is only worthwhile because the qualification it provides leads to higher earnings. This overlooks whether there is something intrinsically valuable about higher education itself. From this viewpoint, if graduates did not earn more than non-graduates then it would not be worth going to university, regardless of its educational merits.
In addition, by focusing on the differences between the earnings of graduates and non-graduates, graduate premiums are a measure of economic inequality. There is something deeply wrong and depressing about measuring the quality of a university degree in terms of how much it contributes to inequality in society.
Some might respond that it is not the difference between the salaries of graduates and non-graduates that is important, but the gaining of transferable skills that make graduates employable. These include problem solving and time management, as well as communication and analytical skills. Crucially, what graduates can do is described in generic rather than specific terms.
This way of thinking falls apart when we examine what it means in specific contexts. For example, if I am preparing a meal there are lots of different ways in which I can describe the skills involved – whether this is in terms of specific technical skills, such as using knives in particular ways, or more general descriptions of the processes involved in cooking particular kinds of dishes. But my ability to describe these skills is very different to my ability to actually produce an edible meal.
In a similar way, in higher education, we often mistake the ability to describe particular skills for the ability to demonstrate these skills in a range of contexts.
Problem solving is one transferable skill that is often seen as central to graduate employability. But if a student can solve a problem in chemistry, it does not mean that they can solve a sociological problem.
The idea of problem solving is empty unless we know the kind of problem being solved, by who and in what circumstances. This means that the successful performance of skills is dependent on students’ understanding of the knowledge they have gained at university.
We need to stop seeing the purposes of university education in terms of graduate premiums or generic skills. Instead, we need to focus on how higher education helps students to gain an understanding of knowledge that changes their sense of who they are and what they can do in the world.
While this does help students to become more employable, employability is not the main educational purpose of a university education. The danger is that we will lose a sense of the ways in which students’ engagement with academic knowledge is central to the way they are transformed by their university experiences. Without this transformation, higher education will not produce the kinds of graduates that ministers rightly insist that society needs.