Attention-grabbing headline further degrades the value of universities

I’ve just seen this article in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper and I am seething.

The headline – ‘Students to pay up to £50 an hour to attend lectures’ – is probably the worst part of it. It’s quite literally a cheap shot at universities by trying to demonstrate their worth through some kind of twisted cost/benefit analysis of the value of a lecture.

Yes, I agree that it’s important for future students to understand the benefits they will get from going to university, as opposed to pursuing a different path when they finish school. But these benefits can be extremely difficult to quantify, and for a young person (and, these days, their parents too) thinking about their future, I suspect this article will only add to the sense that there must be a list of tangible (mainly finance-related) outcomes on offer from a university education.

For a much more reasoned and robust perspective on the value of a university education which does not let the dollar signs cloud its views, I recommend an article by Professor Sir David Watson called ‘What is a university for?’

It may have been published back in 2002, but its messages are still very relevant – and in fact Watson kicks off with a 1359 quote from Lady Clare: ‘through their study and teaching at the university, the scholars should discover and acquire the precious pearl of learning so that it does not stay hidden under a bushel but is displayed abroad to enlighten those who walk in the dark paths of ignorance.’

In typical fashion, Watson gives a list of 10 contemporary challenges for British universities. These are:

1. The expansion of the knowledge economy

2. Investment and “something for something”

3. Accountability and the “quality wars”

4. Instrumentality and student choice

5. Student lifestyles

6. The Information Age Mindset

7. Social polarisation

8. Sector organisation

9. Public confidence

10. The necessity of research

Articles like the one in the Telegraph today will simply induce yet another moral panic for the British higher education sector, right at the time when universities should be doing everything they can to overcome the ‘dark paths of ignorance’ by continuing to deliver quality higher education in the face of severe budget cuts.

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