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University: to go, or not to go? That is but one of the questions we should be asking

University: to go, or not to go? That is but one of the questions we should be asking

Deciding what you want to spend your lifetime doing, and once you’ve done that, working out whether this will afford you the sort of lifestyle you would like, are two quite difficult questions for anyone to answer. In fact they are decisions that many of us will revisit at different times throughout our lives.

I don’t wish to dwell for too long here on the many influences that play a part in these decisions and inform young people during the course of growing up as to what their vocation might be, or what activities they may be well suited to, considering their skills and passions, or what high ambitions they should believe in pursuing. I will just say though that it’s vital we encourage all young people to aim high, and disregard inhibiting influences, whether these be gender stereotypes, negative commentators, or individually held limiting mind-sets.

That said, once the often lengthy process of soul searching and plan-making has been completed, there can be just as much effort required to determine the best way to achieve the ambitions that have been set out – and this falls well beyond the scope of simply questioning whether to go to university or not.

It seemed more straightforward when I was a teenager; there were fewer options to continue learning after Sixth Form, and so it was much simpler to decide what to do next. I read English at the University of Oxford before becoming a teacher of English and Drama and then working my way through roles as Second in Department, Head of English and Drama, and subsequently Head of Sixth Form. I also undertook an MA in Education Management and a National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) before taking on the role of Headmistress. Perhaps quite a straightforward pathway: pursuing at Higher Education a subject that I knew I would enjoy, to my current role, which ticks off boxes in terms of enjoying how I spend my time and being fortunate enough to be able to live how and where I wish. But the route from school through to fulfilling ambitions has not been so clear cut for so many others, nor is it the case for a multitude of careers, and it is becoming less so across the spectrum. 

In today’s society we must be always thinking outside of the box. If people are going to spend in the region of £27,000 on Higher Education tuition fees alone, it needs to be future-proofed and it needs to offer real value for money. Single honours degrees are not going to cut the mustard for the majority.

As was seen in the way that the (necessary) focus on investing in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) so quickly adapted to incorporate the Arts, becoming ‘STEAM’, in recent years, we need to move away from our obsession with keeping disciplines in silos. Yes we need more people to pursue STEM subjects at higher level, but what we really need is for those individuals to also have a breadth of understanding about the way STEM learning relates to the real world, which is where arts and humanities and languages and literature and social sciences come in to play. There was an excellent article last week in which the case was made for Geography and History no longer being pitched against each other in terms of GCSE options, because together they have such an enormous amount to teach us about the world we live in. The same is true for Engineering and Art, for Biology and Ethics, or for Psychology and English; increasingly, the point is that we need interdisciplinary thinking.

The 346th Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Stephen Toope, made the point that we’ve got to get people with degrees who can actually deal with an increasingly complex world. He said:

“How do we begin to understand and address [global] issues? Or consider the problems of global food security. Tackling them requires the combined efforts of engineers, geographers and mathematicians collaboratively developing tools to predict future demands for energy, land and water. It requires plant scientists and veterinary scientists collaborating with colleagues across the world to improve crop yields and livestock resilience to disease. It requires researchers in the humanities and social sciences analysing the political economy of food supply, and evaluating the role of political structures in the production and distribution of food. It requires greater understanding of the regulatory frameworks of land ownership, or the economics of changes in land-use.”

I uphold those universities and institutions that are already well ahead of the curve in answering the call to arms in this respect. James Dyson is unable to recruit some 300 engineers required to meet the needs of his business, and in part to find a solution he has established the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology to address this shortage of engineers, and to teach the next generation of engineering enthusiasts. Importantly, the Institute offers normal undergraduate study for two out of five days per week, with students spending the lion’s share of the week gaining real work experience alongside existing Dyson engineers; in essence the students get the best part of an undergraduate course for which Dyson pays the cost of tuition fees, the experience of an apprenticeship, and they are paid a salary for the duration of the course to boot.

Another example of a respected establishment recognising the need for alternative opportunities is the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst – where all officers in the British Army are trained to take on the responsibilities of leading the soldiers under their command. From September, school leavers have been able to register for a BSc in Leadership and Strategic Studies, an undergraduate degree that can be completed alongside officer training, developed in partnership with the University of Reading. Recognising that some school leavers feel the need to gain a degree because it is the ‘done thing’, Sandhurst has recognised that officer training becomes a more attractive proposition to many school leavers when combined with the opportunity to earn a degree alongside the well regarded officer training and the potential to graduate debt-free. I have been invited to join a panel of influencers at a celebratory event to mark the culmination of 100 years of women serving in the Army in December, and I look forward to playing my part especially in inspiring young women in the Army to push the glass ceiling and to pursue these leadership opportunities.

There are of course existing universities that are also recognising the change of focus needed and UCL in particular is doing an excellent job, offering an Arts and Sciences degree. The Arts and Sciences (BASc) degree is a Liberal Arts course that offers students a range of disciplines, enabling them to combine science and humanities/social science courses according to their interests, and to take core modules “designed to foster interdisciplinary thinking”. Fantastic!

To go, or not to go, to university, then, is no longer a straightforward question with a straightforward answer. Even for those who have a clear idea about what they want to do in their lives beyond school, university may be just one of many options to consider, and the right answer may be an innovative undergraduate course at a traditional university for one student, an apprenticeship course with a respected employer for another, or a place on a course such as the one at the Dyson Institute or Sandhurst for yet another individual. What’s important is for each young person to weigh up the value for money, and time, offered by each opportunity, against the experiences on offer, and ultimately how it will serve to prepare them in the future. There really is no one-size-fits-all answer.