What would you have done with $1 million? Source: Shutterstock

The global impact of universities is generally acknowledged, yet is largely intangible; consequently, it is difficult to establish the value of higher education with any persuasive certainty. Concrete benefits – like the £73 billion pounds higher education contributes to the UK economy each year, for instance – are understated. Accordingly, universities and the degrees they provide are slighted often and severely.

This is hardly surprising: the experiences and consequences of university differ for each individual and complaints are inevitably louder than compliments. While some of the challenges are clear (‘Is university worth it’?), others are more subtle: ‘What did you study? …and where?’ comes with an undertone of a sneering value judgement.

While such judgement would seem discourteous among friends, it is a measure used by employers on a daily basis. HR departments, recruiters and managers alike scan graduate CVs first by noting an applicant’s education and then, if they continue to read at all, by reading the rest through the filter of their reaction to these achievements.

With this in mind, one question presents itself: should one go to university to study a subject they love, or to guarantee a career?

It’s a curious debate. Obviously there is no way to ‘guarantee’ or secure a career with a degree, given that a certificate cannot write a cover letter, sharpen a CV or charm an interviewer – no matter how pretty the frame. On the other hand, all courses cannot be tailored to suit all people. The importance of institution and subject choice cannot be overstated. Studying ‘whatever’s going’ is unlikely to end happily- or lucratively. 

Still, to consider university as a place either for educational and intellectual satisfaction or as a place where one merely improves their chances of employment seems wilfully divisive. After all, it’s possible to do both: in an ideal world, a passion can have marketable prospects.

But what of subjects where the career possibilities are broad but ill-defined, like English or History? Given the barbarous nature of the current job market, the argument goes: shouldn’t school leavers pursue subjects with the best chance of a definite income?

Who is initiating such arguments? Surely education should be celebrated, regardless of its guise? After all, the UK Chancellor benefits by around £94,000 per graduate so, evidently, the tax payer benefits from degrees, not the other way around.

Although such a career-centric approach is admirable in theory, in practice its implementation is easier said than done. Even if reliable statistics on which courses from what universities had the best employment rates were available (and they aren’t – the pertinent word being ‘reliable’) to point sixth formers in the right direction, there would remain the problem that not every student can or will be admitted to study on these courses. After all, if all those who desired places on certain courses were admitted, such courses would lose their prestige and, therefore, any purported benefits. Moreover, the undesirable result would be an army of graduates all trained with identical skill sets.

Crucially, to liken universities to elaborate finishing schools (or, to be unkind, factories) which buff and polish school leavers into ‘instant-employees’ cheapens the purpose of university. Former universities minister David Willetts comprehensively refocused the perception of what universities should achieve and why, positioning them as service providers and students as consumers, the two bonded by a service transaction. Willetts spoke often of how much more graduates could earn, as though this premium were the sole rationale a young person should rely upon when deciding their future. While it seems facetious to pitch the idea so basically, the purpose of higher education is to, well, educate. Education is not a briefing on what it takes to work nine till five. Education hones more subtly vital skills: it refines critical and analytical thought; it helps repurpose enthusiasm as ambition; it inspires. Education can be an end unto itself, not an end unto a means. 

There are, of course, questions relating to practicality. Education for educations’ sake is something of a luxury and to advocate studying something simply for the ‘fun’ would be at best naïve and at worst, impractical and irresponsible. One should be careful not to mistake their hobby for a career: a love of David Beckham is unlikely to materialise into a meaningful career, even if there is a course which, erm, pontificates on the, erm, great man himself. It would be foolish to suggest that anyone without a clear plan should study a subject which has little chance of actively benefitting them – remembering, of course, that financial benefits aren’t everything. 

Equally, it would be just as foolish to push someone into one course over another if the only aim is to make a little cash.  Studying can be a chore – procrastination is practically a pastime for most students – but to study something one doesn’t care for must be all the harder. Indifference toward a course or the feeling one would prefer to be doing something else can hardly be conducive to success. Conversely, working toward something you love can only be a positive. What a novelty – to be happy in your work.  

As a caveat, consider the type of degree: undergraduates are never required to pay upfront and the loan repayments work as a graduate tax. A master’s degree requires a £10,000 bank loan, with interest, which to my mind makes it an expensive investment. Basic economics suggests that those making an investment expect a return – an earnings premium for the extra qualification. This is where the line is drawn.

For undergraduates, though, it comes down to a question of the future. Some may roll their eyes at the idea of pursuing education for the love of learning. It may seem naïve, idealistic, unrealistic. And, for those not passionate about something, it may be. But it’s surely equally problematic to get years into a career only realise you really did want to do something else – and to realise others who pursued their passions have your dream job.