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Home > Culture and Society

Education, Education, Destitution

17 February 2006

Nature has a wonderful way of balancing itself, even after we've fucked with it, blindfolded it and spun it round until it doesn't know where the door is. Even our own piddling manmade societal shenanigans follow the same sort of pattern, and highlight as they do the dumbshitdom of political policies. This week it was reported that applications to university in the UK have fallen for the first time in six years. With 3,000 top-up fees lurking for next term's intake and stories of bankrupt graduates hanging themselves, most of us were Jack's complete lack of surprise.

Of course, as is usual there are modifying complexities behind the bombastic headlines (and a bit dull, to be honest - what's wrong with a cut-and-dried crisis, with one person to blame, preferably one with a comb-over and flashing yellow eyes?). The drop is only in England - 4.5% - whereas applications in Scotland and Wales are actually up. This could be due to a new romantic sensibility in budding students, who want to smell daffodils and sketch thistles rather than languish by the M1 with glazed eyes and stony hearts. Or not. Actually, this leads us to another delightful education story this week: caring, sensitive higher education minister Bill Rammell breezily asserted that when it came to students choosing more career-oriented subjects and eschewing philosophy, humanities and arts, 'If that's what they are doing I don't see that as necessarily being a bad thing'. Well, if you're going to pay off your voluminous student debt then it's only sensible to go for something that might give you a fighting chance of getting a job, but then applications to longer courses such as law and engineering are also down - because longer courses mean increased debt means longer lingerings in B&Q gazing speculatively at the ropes. When it's also reported that graduates probably couldn't begin to spell 'Kierkegaard', it's a very sobering thought that *thinking* may be becoming too expensive. Universities - and forgive us a moment of moustachioed, brandy-sniftering stuffiness - were supposed to be about enrichment and fostering those intangible things like thoughtfulness and sensitivity and whatever-the-fuck. But it's just been reducing down to cold figures, and increasingly depressing ones, for quite a while. It's all a bit Principal Skinner lopping 40% out of the budget with his pencil: 'Ooh, Music and Art!'

University used to be an exclusive and elitist gig, with only people who still called their parents 'Mummy and Daddy' at the age of 18 allowed through the wrought-iron gates, and much has been made of the happy fact that that's not the case anymore. Of course the trouble is that it's swung too far the other way, with Labour wittering excitedly about 50% of everyone resident in the UK acquiring a degree. The tiny issue there is that even now, for every graduate emerging bright-eyed and bushy-overdrafted from three or four years of study, there are around minus a thousand graduate-level jobs for them not to choose from. There's already a substantial population of desperate, battered graduates fending off the raised eyebrows of potential employers, who wonder why such a well-qualified individual would ever want to work as an assistant to the secretary's nail-filer. Thus, a slight drop in university applications can be seen as a good thing - a natural realignment, rather like rodents eating their own babies when food and space are too scarce to sustain them.

However, the problem remains that if we continue on this wobbly track, universities will be full of people with just enough brains and money to get in, but little imagination or heart, all ploughing through functional subjects to give themselves the best chance of paying for their increasingly expensive functional education, and there'll be a dead weight of dullards sitting atop society with still little hope of getting a mortgage before they retire. But again, this may be nature in action; if there aren't sensitive souls agonising over how to find their place in an unfeeling and cardboard-coloured world, there won't be the need for the philosophers and poets who are being selected for extinction to be there to comfort and guide them. Besides, no one ever wanted to admit that Wordsworth was a whining, flouncing berk, but he was, and now is the perfect time to acknowledge that and learn how to progress through the ranks of the National Office of Statistics instead.



Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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