Photo by Carol Yepes
Artillery Row

No university for young men

Higher education no longer offer a bright future

“This pivots of when is learning through practice learning and when is it work.”

No, you haven’t had a stroke, and no, that line was not intended to make any sense. Rather, it is an excerpt of feedback provided for my Master’s thesis. Such is the contempt of the University I attended, that spell-checked exam materials and feedback were luxuries seldom afforded to most students. As graduation approaches, I am left to ponder the previous four years, asking all the while — was it really worth it?

The opening up of higher education to the masses has surely been beneficial to some for whom, like me, going to university 50 years ago would have been little more than a pipe dream. Yet, expanding student numbers to record levels has led many to the bitter understanding that quality education does not scale.

The problems facing higher education are not merely a matter of declining standards, however. I was recently in attendance at a graduation ceremony, where the Chancellor, a so-called celebrity and comedian, used the pre-ceremony address to shoehorn in a 30-minute bit on Jacob Rees Mogg’s opinion of women and some dubious “jokes’”about Nigel Farage’s bank balance. Climate change, racism and Donald Trump also featured heavily. After a brief acknowledgement that University involves a certain amount of studiousness, our host moved on to more important issues: drink and drugs. Of course, that’s what it’s really about. Missing in all of this was any acknowledgement that something special had been achieved by the room of graduands, that they had been a part of something greater than themselves, or that University was about more than obtaining a qualification. By the end of the speech, I and some of the more astute members of the audience did not applaud; rather we looked at our shoes, our minds filled with the sad realisation that University is not what it was.

Whilst this was egregious, the worst was yet to come. Following an honorary doctorate presented to the local Labour MP — obviously — it was time for the close of ceremony address. It was here that the Chancellor asked us to wait until Hogwarts had cleared the stage before leaving our seats. What was ostensibly meant as a joke, albeit a poor and ill-timed one, served only to undermine the very ritual we had all paid to be a part of.

Traditions remain, yet gone are those who appreciate their value. A university education was once a deeply meaningful endeavour. The liberal arts and humanities especially were designed to produce a community of scholars, by inviting collaboration between students and professors in the pursuit of transcendent Truth. Logos, in both the Greek and Judeo-Christian sense, was placed at the heart of all things, and reasoned debate was invited. This was often developed alongside an identity rooted firmly in Enlightenment principles. Professors too would benefit — testing new ideas on their classes, accepting challenges and absorbing insights from students and faculty alike. Now, many of our Universities stand as “trunkless legs of stone”, producing tick-box exercises for students and bureaucracy for academics, in an endless production line of mediocrity. Like Ozymandias they fall, rotten from the inside out as political correctness presides over academic freedom. Diversity, it seems, is everywhere except in thought.

More, it seems, must be done to push men out of the sciences

Like so many of my peers, I learned all too quickly that to succeed at university, rather than produce anything genuinely insightful, one simply had to mindlessly express the correct pre-approved sentiments, lest ye be found guilty of “wrongthink”. It is staggering that less than 100 years ago, two nutjobs, one the son of a Georgian shoemaker and the other a failed art student from Austria, realised that to enslave a population, one must first control the tongues of the priests and the professors. Soon, everyone else would fall in line, and “truth” would be whatever Big Brother said it was. Yet, here we are, debating once more whether free speech is necessary or whether it is simply a byproduct of bigotry or “whiteness” — if such a thing exists.

All of this has made higher education a particularly hostile environment to inhabit, especially for men, who for years now have been branded “potential rapists” and accused of toxicity simply for showing entrepreneurship in their pursuit of success. As the sole male on my course, I sat through my fair share of unhinged rants attacking “evil straight white men”. They usually ended with “no offence, Lewis”, which I suppose makes it all okay. The inevitable result of such hostility is that men are bailing out of the Universities. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), the only UK think tank to focus exclusively on higher education, has documented this shifting demographic for the last few years. As it stands, men represent the minority at only 44.1 per cent. Unfortunately, HEPI is anything but impartial, because, in the same breath, the over-representation of men in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and maths) is branded as the real travesty in need of attention. More, it seems, must be done to push men out of the sciences.

Beyond the political, lies the pragmatic. As more and more people get degrees, the value of such qualifications continues to fall. Employers, generally speaking, are not looking for sociology or creative writing graduates, but rather capable, confident individuals willing to get stuck into the labour market.

Eighteen-year-olds straight out of sixth form or college are impressionable, and they make decisions based on the advice of their teachers or so-called career advisors. What advisor worth their salt could seriously defend spending £9,250 per annum on a “surf science” degree? Unfortunately, it is these very “advisors” who denigrate the trades, in a fashion that stinks of a kind of pseudo-classist resentment towards the working man. I’m sure we all know people who have made a killing from learning a trade — electricians, plumbers, roofers, the sort of people we all need from time to time. Apprenticeships seem like the obvious answer here, and it is encouraging to see the Prime Minister vow to tackle so-called “rip-off degrees”.

Is it enough, given the incentives on offer? It may be our responsibility to fix this, demanding action not from the top down, but from the bottom up. We must as university graduates, parents, employers or teachers, speak the truth to those weighing their options. For some, university will remain the best decision. For those uninterested in examining 21st century feminist media through a postmodernist lens or other such fanciful pursuits, however, we must work to remind young people that there are plenty of other ways to achieve success.

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