Covid lockdowns devalue university degrees even more

by Matthew Eason

We have all seen the news in the past week of new students arriving for university only to discover that they are essentially prisoners in their halls of residents. Students have arrived for the new chapter of their lives only to be told to isolate – with some notable examples of university security staff and even police enforcing this isolation. This of course highlights some ongoing pertinent questions about both the value and necessity of a university education.

Firstly, there is the evergreen argument about the cost of a university education and how universities should be funded without tuition fees. The disagreements over the cost of tuition fees are never likely to disappear but it would appear that some of the arguments for the full cost of tuition fees are unsupportable when many universities are no longer offering in-person courses, resources or education.

Additionally, this move away from physical lectures has gone hand in hand with a reduction in teaching hours – for example, some courses have dropped from 14 hours of face-to-face teaching to 2 hours of online teaching. After all, if much of your argument for the cost of tuition fees is based on the quality of the education you can offer and the physical resources of your campus – surely then, a lack of in-person education or limited access to that campus should mean, at the very least, a reduction or refund of those fees.

Of course, there are further questions about the value of university that existed long before the pandemic. This is primarily because there has been a clear increase in students going to university not to get a better education but rather because a university degree – of any sort – has become a prerequisite for increasing numbers of jobs which it previously did not. This can be traced back to the Blair government’s decision to transform polytechnics, which provided much needed vocational skills training, into universities and to vastly reduce the restrictions on university placements – a trend that every consecutive government has been keen to continue.

As more people gain university degrees the concept of further education becomes devalued. If more than 50 per cent of the population go to university and the vast majority attain a 2:1, can we really say that a university degree makes you more employable and stands you out from the crowd? Increasingly, a degree has simply become an expensive tick box exercise, with employers rightly focusing on the interview process as one university degree is now rarely distinguishable from another. It is now clearly the case that teenagers do not go to university for education or even because it is good for them – but rather it is a clear example of necessity to achieve the bare minimum of what is expected for many jobs.

So, if students are not going to university for the benefits of further education, why do they go? For two main reasons – fun and to delay the real world as well as to get some life experience and independence.

The university experience has a well-earned reputation for entertainment. When people look back at university, they do not think fondly of exams or lectures – they think of the nights out, the clubs, the house parties and the social nights. What is the reality for students in this time of pandemic? A lock in, a curfew stricter than many faced at home (pre-Covid) and a ban on social events. This is hardly the fun experience that they signed up for, nor do they have any real independence.

Why did the Government allow universities to reopen? It simply makes no sense given the high chances of restrictions being reimposed. Moreover, we already knew that even if the curfews and local lockdowns were not happening the chances of face-to-face learning were still minimal as universities and lecturers go virtual. Clubs would still be highly unlikely to be open and social events like Freshers’ Week would not be being organised. Perhaps this bad experience of university will break the cycle but I would not bet on it.

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