To BA or not to BA (Part 2) – don’t gamble with your happiness.

When it comes to university there’s definitely a polarising barrier between the old school and the emerging new schools of thought regarding its benefits. I’ve frequently mouthed off and objected to the ‘university regardless’ approach that is still being peddled by so many schools up and down the country but a recently released survey, the Student Academic Experience Survey, from the Higher Education Policy Unit and the Higher Education Academy, has sought out the views of students about their time in higher education, based on a group of around 14,000 current students. If anyone is well placed to clarify the worth of taking up expensive degrees in the current market it is them, not the antiquated institutional thinking of schools.

For five years straight students have been getting increasingly disappointed about the value for money aspect of their studies, and this latest survey shows it’s hit its hitherto nadir with only 35% of students describing their experiences as good or very good value. Unsurprisingly England who have the highest fees levied against them were more disappointed and perhaps consequently the students’ ‘wellbeing’ has declined in league with that.

The value for money argument taken in isolation may be misleading as it’s once again made a political hot potato of the fees/no-fees debate when the reality is we should be discussing whether university is right for many students at all regardless of the cost. If fees were scrapped then of course the value for money argument becomes moot, but ‘the best use of one’s time’ argument may encourage greater scrutiny. It’s naive and simplistic to lay the blame of university’s efficacy at the door of fees when the reality is there needs to be a seismic cultural shift from society, from schools, from the DfE to stop promoting it as the gold standard. The money is white noise. If anything the potentially prohibitive cost should be used as a positive tool to prevent students blindly following instructions and sleep walking into mounds of often unnecessary debt.

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Happiness and value for money are obviously not immutable truths but it would be foolish not to take notice, for any parents who are trying to frog march their kids into uni or students who are feeling the pressure to take up a course they don’t fully believe in – take a moment. Be rational. Is this what you want? It’s like 3 cup monte, yes there is a chance it may work out just fine but likelier than not, the house will simply take your money. Don’t gamble on university as being the right answer by default and don’t point to the cup unless you’re damned sure the ball is in it.

A good example of this is illustrated by where the divisions lay from the positive and negative feedback, medicine and dentistry, bodies and teeth got a strong showing when it came to value for money. This is because, a) they are likely to see a strong return on investment b) they get many more teaching hours per week than other courses and c) you can’t just pick this up as you go along. That is you need a university education to access the profession. Conversely students on courses like social studies and business studies felt like they were being rinsed, no doubt in part because there are any number of knock off universities peddling sub-par degrees at premium cost on subjects that in many ways could be better studied in a more vocational way or certainly alongside working in the field.

Happiness and anxiety were also key areas of note with young people not in university reporting much higher levels of happiness and only 14% of students saying they were satisfied with their lives – as is understandable given the mounting terror of being £50 grand in hock in pursuit of a degree that will in no way further your life chances.

So come on schools – listen to the report – see how happy and fulfilled your students are as a result of following your advice and maybe open your eyes to the other possibilities, even if it means taking a hit on the arbitrary league tables. Students’ happiness and life chances aren’t quantifiable until much further down the lane and consequently schools care less, but I assure you there’s a change coming and when it does your students will thank you for being on the rising tide rather than dicking about at the back of the harbour where the status quo is allowed to prevail.

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