In The Independent of 30 May, Alice Hughes reported on a survey conducted by MyUniChoices. A large proportion of its 1,000 college and sixth-form pupils stated they had changed their minds about higher education. ‘Before the pandemic‘, 37% of them had intended to go to university but were considering other possibilities, including not going to university and not taking a gap year because of concerns about finances, family and their future in general. More than a third of them were wondering if it is worth going to university at all because of such uncertainties. The survey also reports that these college and school students had expressed a more general uncertainty and worry about the future, both their own and more widely.
That many prospective HE students are questioning previously-made choices and have deep concerns about their future is of course not surprising, it’s very sensible. And it’s likely that a large proportion of the population generally will be thinking similar things. What is surprising is that the phrase ‘if it is worth going to university at all‘ appears as a simple statement in the Independent article without giving consideration to what this means and whether ‘worth‘ in terms of finances and the economy is a sensible way to think about higher education. Both the survey organisation and the ‘experts’ consulted raised a number of practical matters such as the uncertainty of using estimated grades to offer places and the possibility of a January start to the academic year. But what was not raised, at least as reported in the article, is this question of worth.
It’s by no means unexpected that a survey organisation might ignore the question, but is rather dismaying when an education journalist does so. Education is surely all about the future and being as well qualified as possible, in terms of having a good knowledge-base and usable and transferable skills that can be turned to a range of different purposes, thereby keeping their possessor well-informed and well prepared to make life-choices and to be able to fill their time productively in the widest sense of this word.
In this time of a pandemic, education is or should be more at a premium than ever before. It isn’t just about jobs, it’s about life and having flexible skills and capacities. This is of course not to suggest that such things can only be found in education, for the long ranks of earlier generations prove this wrong. But in the present context, it is one of the main ways that several generations of young people have done so; and it is by no means certain, indeed it is highly likely, that opportunities for them to do so within the economy will be considerably foreshortened for a significant period of time.
So yes, it is still ‘worth’ it, in both the narrow economic and the wider evaluative sense of the word. But clearly there are problems and issues.