Education and ‘Value’

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Since, approximately, the beginning of time, politicians, journalists and, if Guardian comments threads are anything to go by, members of the public, have been debating the ‘value’ of Higher Education, and, indeed, education more generally. This debate has grown ever more intense as university fees have increased to £9,000 per year for the average undergraduate, and as more and more students enrol on both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

Much of the discourse on education and its ‘value’ revolves around ‘employability’– universities are increasingly measured, in both league tables and the public eye – by how well they prepare students to enter the labour market, and how much more money graduates earn than those without degrees.

As graduate wages fail to vastly outstrip those of non-graduates and growing numbers of students graduate with ‘good’ (2:1 or above) degrees, politicians, journalists and social commentators speculate – in various ways – that the education system is failing its students. Implicit (and often explicit) in their arguments is the assumption that the rigour and worth of formal learning and academic qualifications declines as the numbers of people achieving qualifications rises. There are too many of us getting degrees and – just like the A grade at A’level – that means they’ve become worthless.

But, although it’s nice to get a cash return on your investment, as anybody who has studied for the love rather than for the money knows, education is not like a diamond or a precious metal. Its value doesn’t lie in its scarcity. Education is more like a child or a lover – it’s ‘value’, should you wish to discuss it in such crass terms (and you surely wouldn’t, if you knew anything about its value at all) is in the way it enriches your life, and the lives of those around you.

Undoubtedly, I agree that ‘education’ is about more than formal, institutionalised learning. Such formal learning, however, importantly offers the time, space, expertise and resources where a particular kind of intellectual creativity can occur, and where students can engage with (and with any hope come to challenge) the thinkers, thoughts and traditions that have created the foundations of the subject they love. The opportunity to engage in formal education is ‘valuable’ for all sorts of people, in all sorts of ways, and we should be thinking about how we can open, rather than reduce, access to it.

In my discipline – drama, theatre and performance studies – there are on-going discussions about how we might demonstrate the value of what we do. The urgency with which we feel we must justify our existence has no doubt been compounded by the Coalition’s denigration of arts subjects in compulsory education. In a desperate scramble to prove our worth in ‘their’ language we supplement our well-worn arguments about the intrinsic value of beauty, the social benefits of arts practices, the positive impact of theatre on the self-esteem of participants and audiences. We point out that arts graduates fair particularly well in terms of graduate ’employability’ due to the ‘transferable skills’ offered by arts degrees, and we remind ‘them’ that in economic-speak arts make up 0.4 percent of GDP, with just 0.1 percent of investment.

I feel profoundly uncomfortable about this.

We shouldn’t fall into the trap of talking numbers when it comes to education – whether in the arts, humanities or STEM subjects. Yes, how much we spend on education has to be considered in terms of wider concerns around public funding. But those of us working in the sector need to resist defining its worth in numerical or monetary terms. Education is too important. It is more than dollar signs. It needn’t be a scare resource to offer something valuable.