When I was a teenager, in the late 40s and early 50s, a university education was something you yearned for, but very few got. ‘Uni’ graduates were very much an elite in those days because there were a lot fewer universities then than there are today, and it wasn’t easy to gain a place – years of high marks at school were required as well as a pass in the pretty stiff entrance exam, and of course all the offered courses were academic rather than practical. If you were going to uni, you were going to be a scientist, a lawyer, a doctor or an academic such as a school teacher or even, if you were really good, a university professor!
If you wanted to become a plumber, carpenter, train driver, fireman or mechanic, you went to Technical College rather than university. The ‘tech’ provided all the practical subjects a non-academic kid could desire, in courses much shorter than a degree, so that a person could be out there earning good money while still a teenager – an important factor in families not bursting with cash!
Even the universities themselves (and here I refer to English colleges, because that’s where I lived in the post-war years), had various levels of desirability, with Cambridge and Oxford pretty well standing alone at the top and all the rest filtering down to the smaller places, such as Exeter, but all of them providing excellent education. At Oxbridge it was fairly important that you were wealthy as well as clever; most of the pupils arrived there from schools such as Eton and Harrow, and more often than not came from rich, ‘establishment’ families, such as royalty, government, big business and the upper echelons of the military. A few free scholarships were offered each year, but these people often found it impossible to fit in and many left before winning a degree.
Since those post war years, things have changed remarkably in academia with more universities offering more places than ever before, a much wider spectrum of courses, and seats being won more on what you knew, rather than who you knew! There is, of course, still a certain amount of elitism in the top universities – I guess it would be impossible to completely root it out (like trying to ban guns in America!), but generally speaking everything is much more democratic than it used to be. In many ways, this is all to the good, providing a much better standard of education for everyone and the wider selection of courses fitting in much better with the ordinary world outside. On the downside, university education is now becoming almost too available, with most high school graduates seeming to be going there, so that today you appear to need a degree to win the most basic of jobs in industry.
Here in Australia, we still have our TAFE colleges, providing the practical education that the many non-intellectual students would prefer, offering excellent courses that fit people out for a life in industry – perhaps the most important part of our economy!
Unfortunately, the idea that somehow having a university degree fits you better for joining industry later on, still affects the thinking of most youngsters and their parents. But we can’t all be intellectual geniuses, nor can we afford to have a country served only by those with large minds, but little practical skill. The people who would be better suited to a job working with wood, or steel, or stone are really wasting their own time and that of the universities, if that is where they hanker to go! What I feel is needed here, is some way of changing attitudes regarding the type of work available and the education required. A plumber, carpenter or welder can earn as much as, if not more than, the scientists and the teachers – it’s all a question of which you’d rather have, a great intellect or a well-filled wallet!
Do you think having a university degree is necessary? And do you have one? If so, did you use it in your career? If not, why not? What was your experience?