I have been a teacher for 27 years, a Headteacher for 12 years and, at the age of 51, this much I know about the worth of a university degree.
My degree was worth everything to me. If my A levels liberated me, my degree launched me into a profession. As a member of the first generation university brigade life choices opened up to me that were closed shut to both my siblings and my ancestors. My three years studying in York were illuminated by Jacques Berthoud’s sparkling English department (1984–1987) which was known as the Golden Generation. York gave me friends for life. It was where I met my wife. And on my first ever solo supermarket shopping trip I learnt to pack my yoghurts in the top of my shopping bag; put them at the bottom and it gets very messy.
Your parents can grant your degree a level of familial currency which is rooted in their own educational background. My mate told his Auntie that he had gained a Triple Honours in Fluid Dynamics, Recreational Pharmaceuticals and Celestial Mechanics (I’ll leave you to work out the truth behind the impressive sounding euphemisms). She was made up. The reality was that he sneaked a Third, the university’s way of saying, Thanks for turning up. Another friend’s parents and grandparents had all been to university; her dad had gained a First at Balliol College Oxford. Consequently her 2:1 hardly registered on the family’s kudos Richter-scale.
In some ways my degree meant even more to my mother than to me. She left school at thirteen, but she had the highest aspirations for me. We always had books in our council house and I owe my love of reading to the regular and frequent Ladybird books mother would magic up for us. I gained the education she was denied by her illness.
What is a degree worth now? The National Student Satisfaction (NSS) survey and the cost of student fees could well be behind the inflation in the number of the highest degree outcomes awarded. Fewer and fewer students are awarded the Bishop Desmond compared to when I was a lad. If your student leaves university with a 2:2, and £35,000 of debt to boot, they are hardly likely to rate you highly on the NSS. One could argue that the best way to gain a high NSS rating is to dumb down your course and award Firsts and 2:1 degrees liberally. A professor mate openly confessed to me that hardly anyone is awarded a degree lower than a 2:1 now and over half of his students are granted special consideration. There is some irony in university admission tutors criticising A level grade inflation when the percentage of students gaining at least a 2:1 degree rises inexorably.
How about we measure which educational outcomes produce the highest earnings over a lifetime? That would allow schools to know which courses would be best for their students’ life chances. We could link the National Pupil Database with P60 and P45 tax data. Wouldn’t that be fun? Well, it’s already been done. And we have Matthew Hancock’s Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, which was passed on the last day of the last Parliament, to thank.
Maybe that’s a good thing. I’m not sure I know any more. The thing is, I’m old enough to remember Maureen Lipman…