Saturday, August 27, 2011

I spent three years at Cambridge eating walnut cake, but don't let anyone tell you a degree is a waste of time

Tom Utley tells a jolly story below in his usual way but he is notably vague about the way in which university "enriched" his life. He makes it clear that it was not his studies. I suppose I must sound a dreadful swot but for me it was precisely the subjects I studied that I found enriching, with philosophy and economics being most so. I was quite active in student life but the only "extra-curricular" activity of which I have fond memories was my time in an army unit attached to the university. But many men have fond memories of their time in the army

Like so many other history graduates, I’ve found that one of the most useful phrases in the English language is: ‘Sorry, mate, not my period.’

I’ve used it countless times over the years when my sons have asked for help with their homework on the Tudors, or when arguments in the pub have turned to why exactly it was that a nation as apparently civilised as Germany turned so enthusiastically to Nazism in the Thirties. ‘You’re a historian, Tom. Tell us how it could have happened.’ ‘Sorry, mate, not my period.’

The truth (and whisper it quietly) is that I’ve long forgotten almost all the history I was taught during my three idyllic, and heavily subsidised, years at Cambridge in the early Seventies.

Indeed, I can only just recall what my period was — and I’m certainly not going to reveal it here and risk being grilled on it by my boys.

So just how much value is a university degree, in a subject as easily forgotten and with such few obvious practical applications as history?

Over the past fortnight, the question has been weighing heavily on the minds of tens of thousands of teenagers, including my youngest son (of whom more later), as their A-level results have come in and the scramble for the last remaining university places continues.

This year, the dilemma — degree or not degree? — has been thrown into sharper focus than ever by the prospect of tuition fees almost trebling to £9,000 a year from 2012.

For those who fail to find places this autumn, this will mean the truly agonising decision of whether to try again next year, when the price of a three-year course at most universities will rocket from £10,125 to £27,000, while a four-year course will cost a whopping £22,500 more at £36,000.

Rubbing the shine off a degree still further, the Office for National Statistics reports this week that one in five graduates actually earns less than the average of those who went straight into work from school with as little as a single A-level. And that figure takes no account of the many graduates who are currently unemployed or who have never worked.

Seen from another angle, of course, the ONS findings mean that four out of five graduates earn at least as much as less qualified school-leavers, while most earn considerably more.

But, at the same time, the figures do show that for a significant minority the Government’s oft-repeated claim that a degree is worth an extra £100,000 across a working life is pretty meaningless.

I think of my own eldest son, three years after he graduated from Edinburgh with a more-than-respectable 2:1 in Spanish, still working every hour God sends behind a bar in West London for little more than the minimum wage.

Or son number two, the idealist of the family, working for a charity in one of the most run-down parts of the Capital, teaching English to immigrants. If he spent three years studying for his 2:1 in English at Newcastle with a view to getting rich, he’s going a funny way about it.

But then I don’t suppose that when they made the decision to go to university, either of them gave a passing thought to the likely effect of a degree on their future earnings.

Quite right, too. For although a lucrative job may be an attractive by-product of a degree (in most cases), it isn’t really the point, is it?

Certainly, the financial value of a degree played no part at all in my calculations when I accepted Cambridge’s offer in 1972. I went partly because I was strongly attracted by the idea of postponing real life for three years — four, including my gap year — but, mostly, because I was lucky enough to have been to a school where it was simply assumed that everyone would go on to university.

Of course, the decision was very much more straightforward then than it is now, since the State was kind enough to pay my full tuition fees, together with a generous allowance for my food, drink and accommodation.

Indeed, unbelievable as it will sound to my sons’ generation, I graduated after three years with my bank account a few pounds in credit. But if you ask me now what was the point of the taxpayers’ largesse, or what they received in return for it, I’d be very hard pushed to tell you.

If I’d studied engineering, medicine or microbiology, I could probably make a convincing case that the investment was worthwhile, and that my studies had added to the gross domestic product or the general health of the nation. But history?

As I may have confessed before, a typical day for me at Cambridge would begin at about 3pm, long after the morning’s lectures were over, when I would crawl out of bed and make my way to Fitzbillies cake shop, opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum.

There, I would buy a large chocolate and walnut cake and take it back to my college, where I’d eat the whole thing. This would set me up for a stroll across the Cam to the history library, where I’d pretend to read for a while until opening time at the Eagle.

Then began hours of conviviality, which would generally end at three or four in the morning, after a Chinese takeaway, with a bottle of port in somebody else’s rooms.

Only once every seven days, on the eve of my supervision, would I have to break this shameful routine with a frantic all-night session, desperately bluffing my way through the weekly essay that was all that was required of me to keep my place.

True, throughout my working life I’ve paid many times more in tax than I received from the State during those three years.

But while it never did my job-hunting any harm to put MA (Hons) Cantab on my CV, I would be very hard pushed to claim that anything I learned at Cambridge added value to my future work.

Indeed, I’ve long been one of those irritating people — mostly graduates, I notice, since those without degrees tend to attach much greater value to them — who believe that too many young people go to universities these days, while for many of them it’s a waste of time and money.

With that thought in mind, I steeled myself for the worst last week, preparing comforting words for my youngest if he failed to get his grades. It wasn’t the end of the world, I was going to tell him. University really wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be — and it was certainly not a guaranteed passport to wealth. Just look at his two older brothers.

And yet, reader, he passed! And as soon as he broke the news that he’d achieved the grades he needed to get into Sheffield to read Spanish — and, yes, history — my heart fair burst with pride and happiness.

Suddenly, the joy of my three years at university flooded back to me. I realised that in countless intangible ways, those seemingly wasted years were the most hugely enriching time of my life — and that everything I’d been planning to tell the boy was rubbish.

To those who see a degree course as a path to making money, I would still advise caution — especially after the fees go up next year. And anyone considering some of the vaguer-sounding courses on offer, such as community development or social welfare, might do well to check the drop-out rates before starting to run up those massive loans.

But even if you forget the lot, you just can’t put a price on three or four years at a proper university, studying a proper subject such as history. And don’t believe any world-weary old fool who tells you otherwise.


Google chief says UK obsessed with 'luvvy' school subjects and calls for 'Victorian' return of science

The boss of Google last night criticised the British education system for its obsession with ‘luvvy’ subjects at the expense of science and engineering.

Dr Eric Schmidt called for a return to a ‘Victorian’ approach of bringing ‘art and science back together’ so that the UK can compete globally.

The internet giant’s executive chairman said there was a lack of students taking science and engineering in Britain and that something must be done to ‘reignite’ children’s passion for the subjects.

Giving the annual MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, he warned that the UK risks falling behind in the digital age unless it makes drastic changes.

The American tycoon said Britain was in danger of losing ground to other countries, despite being the birthplace of the TV and the computer.

‘Over the past century the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths,’ he said. ‘There’s been a drift to the humanities – engineering and science aren’t championed. ‘Even worse, both sides seem to denigrate the other – to use what I’m told is the local vernacular, you’re either a “luvvy” or a “boffin”. ‘To change that you need to start with education. We need to reignite children’s passion for science, engineering and maths.’

Dr Schmidt, who is worth more than £4billion, said: ‘I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools. First: you need to bring art and science back together. Think back to the glory days of the Victorian era. It was a time when the same people wrote poetry and built bridges.’

In his lecture he praised British television as a success story but warned that ‘everything’ could still go wrong. ‘If I may be so impolite your track record isn’t great,’ he said. ‘The UK is home of so many media-related inventions.

‘You invented photography. You invented TV. You invented computers in both concept and practice. ‘It’s not widely known, but the world’s first office computer was built in 1951 by Lyon’s chain of tea shops. Yet today, none of the world’s leading exponents in these fields are from the UK.’

He said British businesses needed support to become world leaders, otherwise the UK would be the place ‘where inventions are born – but not bred for long-term success’.

Dr Schmidt, 56, who studied electrical engineering at Princeton University in New Jersey, joined Google in 2001 and was chief executive of the company until earlier this year. He is the first non-broadcaster to give the landmark lecture which is dedicated to the memory of actor and producer James MacTaggart.

In the past it has been delivered by some of the biggest names in broadcasting including Jeremy Paxman, Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch.

Dr Schmidt also confirmed plans to launch Google TV in the UK. British TV executives fear the arrival of Google TV, which allows viewers to get internet content on their TV screens, could hit their advertising revenue.

In his speech, Dr Schmidt apologised for not appreciating ‘other’s discomfort’ at the ‘disruption’ caused by Google’s position.


Georgia Professors Offer Courses to Illegal Immigrants

Leftists putting their money where their mouth is for once. The "American civilization" course they intend to teach should be a lulu: A festival of hate, no doubt

As college students return to campus in Georgia, a new state policy has closed the doors of the five most competitive state schools to illegal immigrants, but a group of professors has found a way to offer those students a taste of what they’ve been denied.

The five University of Georgia professors have started a program they’re calling Freedom University. They‘re offering to teach a rigorous seminar course once a week meant to mirror courses taught at the most competitive schools and aimed at students who have graduated from high school but can’t go to one of those top schools because of the new policy.

“This is not a substitute for letting these students into UGA, Georgia State or the other schools,” said Pam Voekel, a history professor at UGA and one of the program’s initiators. “It is designed for people who, right now, don’t have another option.”

The policy, adopted last fall by the university system’s Board of Regents, bars any state college or university that has rejected academically qualified applicants in the previous two years from admitting illegal immigrants. That includes five Georgia colleges and universities: the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State University, Medical College of Georgia and Georgia College & State University. Illegal immigrants may still be admitted to any other state college or university, provided that they pay out-of-state tuition.

The new rule came in response to public concerns that Georgia state colleges and universities were being overrun by illegal immigrants, that taxpayers were subsidizing their education and legal residents were being displaced. A study conducted by the university system‘s Board of Regents last year found that less than 1 percent of the state’s public college students were illegal immigrants, and that students who pay out-of-state tuition more than pay for their education.

“What we’re hoping is that people in decision-making positions will reconsider the policy,” said Reinaldo Roman, another of the organizing professors. “It goes counter to our aims. We have invested enormous resources in these young people. It makes sense to give them a chance at an education.”

For now the course will simply serve to expose the students to a college environment and challenge them intellectually. It will not likely count for credit should the students be accepted at another school, but the professors said they’re seeking accreditation so credits would be transferable at some point in the future.

The five founding professors all work for UGA, but they stress that the program has no connection to the institution. UGA referred a request for comment to the Board of Regents. Regents spokesman John Millsaps said faculty members are generally free to do whatever they want with their free time as long as it doesn’t interfere with their responsibilities as employees of the university system. But he said he didn’t know about enough about the program to comment on this specific case.

Once the professors hatched their plan – which was suggested by an illegal immigrant community member who works with a lot of illegal immigrant teens – they reached out to professors at prestigious schools nationwide to sit on a national board of advisers. One of them is Pulitzer Prize winning author and MIT professor Junot Diaz, who calls policies barring illegal immigrants from state schools cruel and divisive. He said he’s ready to help Freedom University succeed.

“Whatever they ask of me. I’ll do everything and anything I can,” he wrote in an email. “This clearly is going to be a long fight.”
With professors donating their time and a local Latino community outreach center offering a space for free, the program has few costs. They’ve started an wish list asking people to donate textbooks for students and gas cards for volunteers who will drive students to and from class.

Dressed in a black fleece jacket and tan cargo shorts and carrying a black backpack during a protest rally Tuesday at UGA against the policy, 25-year-old Karl Kings looked like he could be headed to class. However, Kings says he’s an illegal immigrant who was brought to the U.S. when he was a year old from a country in Asia that he declined to identify. “Pretty much, I would be a Georgia boy except I wasn’t born here,” he said. “I grew up here my whole life.”

After graduating from high school in suburban Atlanta in 2004, he dreamed of going to college but couldn’t afford to pay out-of-state tuition. He’s gotten by doing odd jobs, but has had to turn down some more stable or challenging job offers because they required proof of eligibility to work in the U.S. He was filling out an application for Freedom University at the end of the rally this week.

The program is currently taking applications, with the first class, American Civilization I, set to start Sept. 8. The five professors will rotate teaching the seminar course on their own time at an off-campus location. All qualified applicants will likely be accepted unless there are so many applications that space constraints force them to limit admissions, said Lorgia Garcia Pena, another of the founding professors.


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