University is not the universe

Today is A-level results day in England and Wales – A-levels are your passport to university and seem to be seen as the be all and end all of the school education system. Today we are provided with the annual entertainment of noting that this story is usually illustrated in the press with attractive young ladies (often jumping), and the rather shocking news that this is driven as much by certain schools* as it is by journalists. Tomorrow we can expect stories on how A levels are getting easier.

This does detract from the key point of the day: which is to mark the achievement of academically inclined students who have been working industriously for the last couple of years whilst they battle with the horrors of being a teenager. Well done to you all!

Over the past 20 years or so it seems our entire focus has been on getting people to university to do degrees and build the knowledge economy. But are we right to place so much emphasis on attending university? Is this a piece of cargo-cult science whereby we have observed in the past that people who go to university are often more “successful” than those that don’t and assume that the “going to university” bit is the key to success – therefore if we can get more people to go to university they, and the country, will be more successful?

Amongst the great battle over tuition fees, those that do not attend university, who missed out on this often middle-class rite of passage were entirely ignored. We don’t celebrate people who go off to learn how to be plumbers, electricians, carpenters and so forth. We don’t celebrate the people who I work with, who joined the company out of school and have done university degrees part-time. We don’t celebrate the now increasing numbers going off to do apprenticeships. These are all people, equally valuable to society, whose jobs simply don’t require a degree to do their jobs.

*article by Chris Cook at the FT, available by free registration