‘University students should be taking more utilitarian subjects during this time of austerity’.

November 29, 2010

 

These are times of austerity.  The public should not be contributing for students to pursue subjects that will not benefit the country or the economy.  With a tight-fisted budget, practical and cautious choices need to be made.  It makes common sense for students to take prudent degree choices, in a time when there isn’t much scope for being reckless.  It is good advice for students to be fiscally prudent, especially at a time in which ½ million jobs in the public sector are forecast in the coming years.  They don’t have to heed this advice.  But if they want a job and pay off their debts as soon as possible and have some security, taking a utilitarian subject is the way to go.

In an ideal situation, people should be encouraged to pursue their passions.  But we have to tackle the deficit.  The Spending Review unveiled a 28% cut to local government funding over the next four years – down from £28 billion to £21 billion.  Building Schools for the future programme has been axed.  Universities are facing huge cuts.  It would be untenable for the coalition to cut benefits to families further, and the NHS has already been ring-fenced.  Most people would say that in times of austerity, training more doctors, nurses and teachers is the priority.  Most people would rather have a hospital than have millions spent on museums and art galleries.  Perhaps this is why the Arts and Humanities Research Council funding has been cut.  The Comprehensive Spending Review revealed how funding for teaching will be cut by £3.2bn and a further £1bn will be cut from research funding.  Of course, this is a difficult choice, but something has to give.

What this country needs is for people to graduate with good degrees in subjects that will help them to find jobs.  Between 2000 to 2007, graduates contributed to a 6% growth in the private sector.  This needs to be applauded and encouraged further.  Utilitarianism, that old Benthamite ideal, emphasises the moral worth of doing something that is determined solely on its usefulness.   So when Browne explains that ‘There are clinical and priority courses such as medicine, sciences and engineering that are important to the well being of our society and economy’, he is right.  It makes common sense.  I think we can all agree that funding people to save the lives of others is certainly a priority.  This is not to say that only the subjects that Browne mentions are useful.  Many other subjects have higher levels of transferrable skills.  The utility of a subject to the country can be measured in the way the graduate contributes and adds value to society.  This being economic or social value.  If certain subjects increase employability in a graduate, thus reducing unemployment and increasing the number of tax payers, this is what needs to be encouraged.

There is a fallacy that utilitarian subjects may be boring, or that students will not perform well if they do not take up subjects that they are passionate about.  No one is saying that everyone must study engineering or medicine.  Things only have a utility if you make it so.  There is a plethora of degrees leading to networking opportunities and successful jobs.  But there is no question that certain degrees provide an added advantage to the graduate by including internship opportunities with business partners.  This type of practical experience in the work place is invaluable now.  If students are offered such courses that will make it easier for them to find a job, it makes sense to encourage this.

We now have a situation in which some degrees that are offered are absolutely absurd.  This is at the taxpayers’ expense.  For example, the University of Plymouth offers a BSc Surf Science and Technology.  Even worse are Gambling degree at Salford and a degree in bed selling at Bucks New University.  You couldn’t make this up.  How on earth will such degrees provide transferable skills or employability?  If people want to pursue their passions this is fine, but it does not make sense for the public to be asking for the public to reach into their pockets to pay for this.

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