UCL Debates: Should we glorify universities in schools?

UCL Debates: Should we glorify universities in schools?

Beatrix Willimont discusses some of the key points raised during the debate on the motion ‘This House regrets the glorification of universities in schools’

Last Monday the UCLU Debating Society held a public debate on the motion ‘This House regrets the glorification of universities in schools’. A pertinent debate, the discussion addressed many insufficiently discussed issues relating to the effects of painting university as the ultimate passage to success.

The proposition begins by stating that vocational qualifications are devalued by schools whose league table rankings are influenced by the numbers of students they successfully send to university. This is leading to significant disenfranchisement amongst less academically able young students. Pupils as young as fourteen are finding themselves being told that the choices they make from this age onwards should be leading them to the best university they can hope to be accepted to. This is not only an enormous burden to place on the shoulders of the young, but it is disillusionary. Instead of being taught that everyone grows and learns in different ways and develops at a different pace, young people are being forced to labour under the impression that success and their self-worth should depend on how many A*’s they achieve at school.

Proposition argue that glorifying university degrees results in other valid and respectable options are deemed less valuable than they actually are. The reality is that academia suits a particular type of person and mind, and academic success is in many ways a mediocre measure of one’s ability to achieve success in life. This is what the glorification of universities in schools does: it prescribes a mould for young people to fit. When a child finds themselves not fitting the mould as well as they should, they become disenfranchised with school and thus begin to lose interest in all forms of education. With the looming threat of Ofsted over their heads, teachers spend more time focussing on ensuring their students and schools meet the demands made of them, rather than focussing on inspiring their students and conveying the value of life-long learning in all its forms.

Another issue overshadowed by the glorification of universities is that the ability to learn effectively is not the same as gaining the skill sets suited to a given profession. Graduates finding themselves working jobs that have no relation to their degree is apparently leading to what one speaker terms the ‘great graduate regret’ – a syndrome suffered by those who realise that their degree may not have been worth it after all. There is a lack of differentiation between vocational and non-vocational degrees even at university. Law or engineering degrees simply aren’t equivalent to history or philosophy degrees – the former directly lead to very specific professions. But this difference is rarely sufficiently acknowledged, even by students at university.

It is claimed that 49% of university educated people believe what they learnt at university to be irrelevant to their current work. They note a stark distinction between the kinds of skills required by employers, and the ones provided by degrees. It seems that in essence, people are paying enormous amounts of money to earn from universities what are essentially stamps of validation – seals of approval labelling the awardee as more than sufficiently competent at learning things that may be applicable to a specific profession, or may not.

However, the dream of attending a prestigious university is in itself inspiring. The fun globally said to be had during one’s university years; the chance to study something one is passionate about, are easy selling points. Topping this, the fact remains that degrees from the best universities are most valued by top employers. The opposition bench remarks that it is a matter of fact that people with university degrees generally earn more money and have more successful and fulfilling careers. In this sense, degrees are synonymous with the best chance at success and this is why schools are justified in pushing students towards them.

Social mobility is also increased by ensuring all young people strive to attend university, and not just those who can easily afford it and who are well equipped to thrive there from a young age. Everyone should strive for the best they can achieve. University is the best aim that exists for young people and it should therefore be the aim of all young people. Not just the privileged, not just the academically gifted.

Following the debate, the audience voted in favour of the motion, regretting the glorification of universities in schools. Indeed, the fact remains that devaluing other options such as apprenticeships leads to more harm than good for those who are not suited to academia and that are more likely to thrive by setting different goals and learning in a different, more hands on way. This said, the road to the top of society still runs smoothest through universities and this is why we are so intent on portraying them as the holy grail of opportunity to our children.

Beatrix Willimont