Pray Tell, What is a “Useless” Degree?

I’ll keep the details of this anonymous, because I’m not that much of a tool, but spotted on a Facebook comment’s section somewhere (paraphrased):

I think if you don’t use your degree you should pay for it. You shouldn’t do a useless degree, and paying for it will make kids think about the debt they’ll get into.

I’ll get the dickishness out of the way first: this person’s publicly accessible Facebook profile shows what their educational background is, and what their current employment is. Naturally, the two don’t match up. Ah, you studied psychotherapy but are now in project management? Tut tut. You’ll have to pay it back now, hope that job pays well!

The trouble with suggestions like this is that they get so many thumbs up and “yeah, we should do that!” from people – but they’re absolutely insensible. They literally couldn’t be enforced.

For starters, who gets to decide what a “useless” degree is? Some randomer on Facebook who happily taps and types away their opinions? Or perhaps worse, a cabinet minister whose sole experience of higher education is having “strong views” on it. If we are going to draw a ring around “useless” degrees and warn people off them, then surely we need to know where to put that ring, right?

“Ooh, I know!” pipes up Margaret, from Finance, in the front row “things like Music!”.

Ah yes, that useless degree. No one uses that. Well, apart from all major opera singers, choral singers, soloists and those famous people who you hear on Radio 3 (or Classic FM if you’re not a fan of classical music) and who can get paid quite a wad for what they do. They’re all graduates or some college or university, and clearly such a thing was useless to them.

“Well, what about English? Who needs English as a degree? We already speak it!” – Well, Brian from Marketing, people with those degrees tend to have written a lot, essays and the like, and they tend to get pretty good at it. They end up getting jobs as copywriters, or journalists, or senior planners or any other thing that might call upon the need to be able to type more than a Facebook post, and by a reasonable deadline.

We could go on forever. The irrational hate-on people have for arts degrees has probably been examined elsewhere, so how about I propose an example?

I have a second-year student who is going to graduate and become an army officer. “Ah! He’s not using his degree!” shouts our original poster. “See, there! Why should he get an education on us if he’s going to throw it away?”

Well, he could step into a specialism around NBC warfare, where a chemistry degree will come in handy given the nature of the “C” in NBC. (I mean, I have no personal clue how the internal make-up of our armed forces work, but I assume they’ll have people looking into that sort of thing) Is he using his degree then? Or perhaps he won’t even do that and just be an infantry officer. Is he using his degree, then?

No?

What about the communication skills he’s picked up on from the presentations undergraduates give? What about the self-discipline and dedication to sit in the library on a night when everyone else goes out to a bar? What about the ability to research and work with others in a team? Or his in-depth knowledge about how to handle substances carefully and safely? Surely, as a chemistry degree is more than rote-learning how atoms stick together, he must be using it to good effect, right? Right?

fees

And that’s why such bizarre suggestions are nonsensical (even UKIP’s proposal to make STEM subjects free-of-fees). You teach and learn more than just the core subject at university level, and the diversity of subject matter and activities mean you can’t ring the entire degree and call it “useful” or “useless”. By many metrics, my degree was “useless” owing to my eventual specialism – I probably use less than 30% of that information on a daily basis. Did I therefore waste 70% of the taxpayer contribution to that degree? And should I therefore repay only 70%? Or maybe my estimate is wrong and it’s actually 70% I use on a daily basis and I only repay 30%?

Indeed, how do we even begin to work on these metrics? Does only your final income count? If so you don’t have to pay back your fees or student loan if you become a millionaire, but if you land anything less than £20k a year we get to punish you for it?

Who gets to figure all this out and make it right? Magical “Common Sense” going to help you out there?

There are a lot of problems within higher education – how it’s treated as an expectation for the middle classes, how the government misuses it as a panacea for social mobility, and how a continued attitude towards treating it as a consumer product is converting universities into bigger schools rather than universities – but none of that is fixed by creating an artificial demarcation between “useful” and “useless” degrees. To do so would be to tell a certain class of people that they arbitrarily don’t deserve the shot at HE or even just the experience. And if you want to draw that line, you had better come up with a better reason of where to put it than “because I said so”.

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