Useless degrees – who should pay for your studies?

As years in higher education pass by, I keep coming back to a notion I picked up in a book about Japan’s economic miracle. The smart Japanese, intent on developing their economic might in the shortest possible amount of time, developed their higher education (public, e.g. state-owned and state-funded) to an advanced level. They had, however, one interesting attitude, which might come in handy in the current discussions about Western higher education – the Japanese funded lavishly those degrees that the government considered USEFUL. Engineering, mathematics, chemistry, physics, architecture, etc we all strongly and consistently supported. The same could not be said about degrees like political science, history, etc, which were deemed unable to contribute to economic development.
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Of course, we will come across arguments that a technological society in rapid development “must find space/time/money for the arts” or “without knowing history we are doomed to repeat it”, but the counter argument is one of financial analytics. Concepts such as RoI come to mind, which play a major role when we consider the size of state expenditures on higher education and the ratio of expected/real returns. Therefore the question becomes one of: why would a government spend tens of millions of dollars (usually much more) on providing free education in areas that make no or very little contribution to national development? How much GDP growth can we expect from students of politics, sociology, history, art, music, drama, media, of whom each nation has tens of thousands graduating each year?
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This is especially important when I recall a second bit of information – many years ago I came across a research paper in the UK, detailing the career paths of university graduates: 30% had jobs that did not require a degree, 30% had jobs that needed a different degree, and only the remainder correlated university education with later employment (I think those ratios are correct, but taken form wihtin the haze of memory). So, 60% of researched graduates could be said to have “useless degrees”.
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Let us drop in one more component – the massive global economic depression, which is hitting the European Union especially hard. And even harder-hit are the EUs 20-somethings, fresh out of universities, both prestigious and not. Those frustrated, over-educated, unable to find any work people who will for the rest of their lives remain a generation devoid of optimism (and national insurance).
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So, why would a government provide funding for so much “useless degrees”? Why throw away money on institutions, programmes and staff, who “educate” young people straight into unemployment and feel no remorse over this sad fact? It seems that governments have still bigger problems to sort out, before they even begin looking at such issues. Also, such policy changes will be unpopular and, especially in democratic countries, bring with them bad media (no longer just “bad press”). Yet, when we consider the economic efficiencies coupled with reduced citizen frustration, then we begin to see some logic behind the idea.
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Critics will, of course, talk about the freedom of a student to choose their educational path. Yes, that freedom must exist, but CANNOT be guaranteed when the government is footing the bill. There is a solution to this “freedom dilemma” and it comes in the form of diversified funding for higher education:
– Strategic degrees, vital to the nation? Of course, the government will fund the institution, which in turn will mean that students study for free and may even receive additional funding (bursaries, social support, scholarships, etc).
– Useful degrees, providing overall improvements (as management graduates should)? Yes, but a funding-sharing arrangement akin to public-private partnerships (PPP), where institutions/companies co-fund the production of their future employees.
– Art and history? Useless degrees. If you want to study that, pay for it yourself. In case of the first funding model, the state assures a return by having a contract with each students requiring them to work within the nation, for local companies, etc.
The second model provides a simple system of guarantees – the company that co-funds a degree will expect to “get” the graduate. In the third case, no one cares – a student paid for his/her education in an unproductive discipline and that same student then faces the consequences of his/her educational folly (plus a bank debt or unrecoverable loss of own many thousands of Euros).
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It would be fascinating to see the statistics of higher education shift dramatically and swiftly, as people would abandon no-longer-free “life changing” and “personality growing” and “passion following” degrees and either: go to work straight after high school or seek-out a tertiary-level education that would provide them with a steady job and for which they would not have to pay as much as for the “idealistic” degrees. The students themselves would begin to look at their life, study, career through the eyes of an investment banker (“if I invest, what do I get out?”).
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Some institutions would be closed down, some would reformat their organisational units, many departments would be closed and staff laid off. But then, in a pragmatic 21st century, are universities to be the retention warehouses for the unemployable and useless, or are they to be vital institutions in the development of human capital and technological advantage that the Chinese low-cost producers cannot easily copy? If vital research in “useless” disciplines exists, then such researchers can gain funding from other sources. If a government suddenly needs 300 political science graduates or media/PR advisers, it can provide one-time, target-specific funding.
And yes, this is the opinion of a Politics degree graduate (admittedly one, who dramatically refocused his life after exiting the university, moving away from his own “useless degree”). And who did not receive government funding…


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