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Dear GCSE and A-Level Students, Beware the Cult of University

27/08/2013 11:11 BST | Updated 23/10/2013 10:12 BST

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Cartoon by Morten Morland.

University occupies a hallowed place in society and the popular psyche. It is the darling of the middle classes and the promised land for the socially aspirational. So in love are we with the university model that its become a "neurosis".

It's been canonised as the official civic faith and made the secular icon, to which we must give our reverence and total deference. As Jeremy Paxman said on Newsnight:

"The middle classes are always going to want to go to university."

And the faith is almost absolute. To not go to university would be the ultimate profanity, heresy, and apostasy. As Carole Hornsby Haynes said:

"It has become politically incorrect to even suggest that a degree might not be right for every young person."

The story is simple: university sits at the top of the hierarchy of prestige, it is the only real route to success, everything else is lesser.

And herein lays a major problem: university is not the only way. University is, and by common and economic sense, cannot be for everyone. To think otherwise would be a delusion. To build a society and education system upon this premise is both an arrogance and an absurdity. As Kevin Myers said in the Sunday Times:

"Our Demented obsession with academic achievement. We regard anything technical which makes the hands dirty as not being quite respectable. Yet the most successful society in Europe, Germany, reveres the engineer."

Two negative effects flow from this university-is-the-only-way nonsense, cult and blind-faith.

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Firstly. We cannot in all sense build a functioning economy upon a workforce made up of university graduates all determined/programmed/indoctrinated to work in the traditional professions. Yes it's a nice thought that everyone should be able to go to university and work as a lawyer (2/3s of US parents want their child to go to law school), but this sort of thinking can only have the serious and disastrous effects on the economy. As Carole Hornsby Haynes said:

"Since our society has swallowed the "college degree for everyone" propaganda completely -- hook, line, and sinker -- we now have the unintended consequence of credential inflation."

Lets look at law as an example. Things are way out off-balance - supply vastly outstrips the demand for lawyers. The head of Law Society of England and Wales recently said that 1000s of law students will never get a job in law. Michael Todd QC, Chairman of the Bar Council spoke to the same effect when he said that many have students "no hope" of a job in law. I can tell you first hand that the reality on the ground is brutal and the facts paint a horrible picture: 100 law graduate applications for every paralegal role.

Yet we're way under capacity in more traditional trades. Thirty years ago only one in ten school leavers went to university; now almost half do. Research by Malcolm Brynin has shown that graduate premium is declining massively, by almost a third in the 15 years since 1993.

In the face of the university monopoly we need to create and promote a system that offers a range and diversity of options and opportunities that mirrors the plurality of skills and interests that characterise our young people. The university obsession is all about prestige and like Lord Baker said, we need to bring back the old polytechnics that had been scrapped in the early 1990s which had provided the authentic vocational training which we need the most. And as the Institute of Public Policy Research said:

"It would declare that the university title and the university route are not the only form of high status in our system."

Secondly, and here's the more sinister problem. Like a single-party state blasting out the single-party line, the university faith means we are told to go to university. That is the faith. To reject the faith is to commit an almost unspeakable sin.

By accepting this faith young people accept that so long as they achieve good grades and collect the degree, they will get a job. The simplistic single party line (degree = amazing job) indulges our young. It makes them feel entitled. That the world owes them something.

The sinister effect of this faith is that it can create a large credulous and unthinking mass. And this is the irony and paradox. University is supposed to foster critical thought and free enquiry, yet university actually terminates thought and dulls the mind.

Why do anything more than is necessary? You cash-in and cash-out, a degree = a good job after all. Plus you have the drinks curriculum to worry about. As Dale J Stephens said:

"I enrolled [into college]... However any idealism was quickly squashed. For the most part, people weren't there to learn - they were there to party, and hangovers permitting, learn something along the way. I started asking questions."

Unfortunately I didn't ask any questions like Dale did. I like many others held the faith. Did what was asked of me. Stuck to the curriculum, studied hard when needed and drank hard as the university party culture demanded. Then I graduated and found that the faith was all a socially-reinforced illusion.

Yes it was 2010 and the economy was in the shit, but the reality was that I was wholly unemployable. All employers wanted professional experience and commercial awareness. Yet after a four year degree I didn't have even a minute's experience or even the foggiest idea of what being a lawyer or law practice was about. But how or why would I? The university faith said degree = job.

I was furious. I felt cheated, duped, violated. I adhered to the faith, revered the faith, gave my everything to the faith. Yet all I got was kick after kick from the Orwellian boot as recruiter's door after recruiter's door slammed in my face.

Instead of going all mental and smashing windows I did as Andrew Sullivan did and "I wrote my way out of the bleakness". And so, every single thing I've written since then has been with the intention to unveil the stupidity and calumny of the cult of university. (As well as the preposterous iniquity that is nepotism and patronage that is still rife (read my essays here).)

So do I think we should do away with university altogether? Absolutely not. I'm no anarcho-iconoclast. I fundamentally believe that an informed decision to go to university could be the best decision you'll ever make. But this credulous and unthinking faith that university is a key to success is an absurdity and it must be shown so.

The university premium is no more. The world has changed. The economy has changed and so education and mind-sets must change. Brian Lightman of the Association of School and College Leaders said that apprenticeships can in fact be better. He said:

"A good apprenticeship trumps a poor university degree. Some university degrees are just not worth the money. You have to look at the employment opportunities at the end of it."

To conclude. If we want to create a competitive economy we need to radically evolve our perceptions and change the way we deliver education. Yes doctors and lawyers are important, but there are only so many the economy demands. We cannot forever funnel out best and brightest into the old professions. We need to present a plurality of options from the platform of a modern, non-industrial schooling system.

Luckily some young people have worked out the problem. Harry Bird, 18, explained in the Sunday Times his decision to take up an apprenticeship with PWC as opposed to doing a degree:

"The education system is way too focused on going to university. My school never talked about doing an apprenticeship but I saw an advert, applied, and luckily I got through. My head of sixth form wanted me to go to university, but my economics teacher supported my decision.

Why would I want to go to saddle myself with £40,000 of debt? I'm working at Waitrose this summer and I'm alongside people who have degrees who are stacking shelves. What a waste of time that was for them. Now they're in loads of debt and struggling to pay it off."

A similar story was recounted on Radio 4. As a teenager, Phillipa Riduck moved against the status quo and against all her university-bound peers and took an apprenticeship. Phillipa got on the job training and a job at the end of the term. All her university friends had a good time but left jobless.

If we continue the way we are we will condemn some of our most capable to a career of mediocrity and compromise. Only a complete collapse of our critical faculties could explain the status quo. The current situation is one of mediocrity, where schools are short-sighted, technocratic and job-irrelevant exam factories and universities are industrial holding pens.

So, to all those A-Level and GCSE students I applaud your hard work. But I ask you to think clearly and sensibly for yourself. Look to people like Dale J Stephens who asked questions about the status quo and founded UnCollege. Look to people like Phillipa Riduck and to people like Harry Bird who saw the fate of university graduates. Look to people like Miki Agrawal, 'Author of Do Cool Sh*t' and see how she is creating a new path for young people.

Question the status quo and I urge you to make a very considered decision before enrolling on any university course. And absolutely try not to be like this girl who chose to go to law school based on the very vague notion that she wanted to be like Elle Woods from Legally Blond.

Further reading:

- Our Future Workforce Is Stuck in a Pattern of Mediocrity, here.

- 'Need a job? Invent it?' in the New York Times, here.

- The days of when students need just MS Word are long gone, in Forbes Magazine here.

- "If we want more engineers, more innovation, this needs to be on the curriculum, not cable television," said Ashton Kutcher.

- A recent poll found that students with experience are 3 times more likely to get a job.

- The Deputy Editor of The Economist Emma Duncan of the economist said that education's production line stinks and that the "labour market is demanding better quality output."

- I made the case for practice-based learning based on the thinking of Michael Oakeshott here.

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