How much is education worth? Putting a price on learning and the responsibility of society.

News today that more than a third of British Universities will be charging the maximum £9,000 per year course fees for all their courses. Nearly two thirds will be charging this level for at least some of their courses. This is a significant change from where we sat twenty or thirty years ago, when we paid for students to study. (

By my reckoning, for a three year course, with student loans included, this means many students leaving University with £50-60,000 of debt. That, by anyone’s reckoning, is a lot of money.

The luxury of a University education is a wonderful thing, in terms of both personal development and academic learning, but is it really worth this much? Can you put a price on learning or, more to the point, can you measure the impact of this level of debt on young people entering the workplace?

There is much to be proud of in our education system, many shining lights of academic excellence but, to be honest, there are also some pretty mediocre offering around too. Not all degrees are excellent, and if i’m honest, from the number of graduates that i interview, not all students are necessarily suited to University degrees. The aspiration of having a level playing field for all, with the majority of young people gaining a degree is certainly noble, but saddling them with huge debts in the process takes the edge off it.

It’s a trade off between freedoms and choices now and freedoms and choices later. I agree that the three or four years spent at University can be life changing and can form the foundations of learning that carry on through life. But often, they don’t. Often courses, especially the highly vocational ones, are mediocre skills training sessions. Critical thinking and analytical skills are simply not taught at all, and in my view, racking up tens of thousands of pounds of debt simply so you can learn to use some software that you could probably teach yourself for free is simply irresponsible. Certainly there’s a lot to be said for shared houses, student bars and University clubs, but can we really, in all conscience, saddle students with tens of thousands of pounds of debt for this? Debt which will cripple them when they are still, at thirty, trying to save the deposit for a house?

The problems with training people in ‘skills’ is that, unless used, they become rapidly outdated, and in many vocational degrees, there simply aren’t the jobs available. And if there are jobs, they are not well paid. Within e-learning, it’s well known that, if you are reliant on ‘tools’, your earning potential is virtually capped at the level of what the next wave of graduates will work for. Very very few freelancers will earn significant money.

Is this the time that we should start looking at shorter courses, one or two years, that are focused more on analytical and problem solving skills and methodologies? Courses that give a broader grounding in critical thinking, courses that give wider life skills, but perhaps in a shorter time, so that levels of debt are lower, more manageable?

Learning is a privilege and a luxury and the fact that, as a society, we have a culture that provides dedicated spaces and times for people to learn, to read, to collaborate, to drink and be drunk and to grow is a marvellous thing. Charging them heavily for the privilege and leaving them walking out of the door with a lack of broad skills and a level of debt that is the equivalent of buying half a house is irresponsible.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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3 Responses to How much is education worth? Putting a price on learning and the responsibility of society.

  1. Zoe Rose says:

    I agree with most of what you’ve said here, with one proviso about tools.

    The majority of tools don’t actually change very much as they develop. All word processors, for example, have the same fundamental features. The same goes for accountancy software and video editing suites. Most websites, from the simplest to the most fancy as they are, will still run off html, and SQL is pretty much SQL wherever you find it.

    To train extensively in MS Word is a waste of time, but to train extensively in ‘word processors’ is not. The building blocks matter.

    The same could be said for formal and written English, and Maths.

    I worry that we are painting all procedural/functional skills with the same ‘it’s too specific’ brush. I can hardly think of a thing I do in a day that didn’t require procedural skills first, and I’m very wary of under-valuing them.

  2. Pingback: Microcosm | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  3. Pingback: A Civil Society? | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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