In the wake of the recent student protests over tuition fees, I have heard more than one conversation recently on the subject of students, their resources and the courses they are taking at university. Most of these conversations have passed me by, there was little point in my participating as the scale of the ensuing argument would be out of proportion to the scale of the points I might make.
One friend of mine annoyed me enough to pull out my keyboard though, with the assertion that "worthwhile" courses like science and engineering should be fully funded while "worthless" degrees such as art history or media studies should receive no funding. The speaker expected my agreement, as my degree is in electronic engineering, and was quite surprised when I rather vehemently expressed opposition.
You might expect that I'd be about to say that all degrees are worthwhile, and that art historians and media students deserve support as much as electronic engineers. And I won't disappoint you there, after all my sister is an art historian who spends a lot of her time ensuring that media studies students have at least one course they have to put in some serious work at to pass.
But what you might not expect is that I would attack the notion that an engineering degree is a worthwhile degree that should be viewed as more important for funding than any other. My experience of having an engineering degree is that once outside the walls of the university it really hasn't been of much use to me directly other than as a bit of paper, the teaching was designed to breed engineering PhD students rather than equip us for life in industry and everything I have done for a living since has either been learned on the job or based upon something I learned outside university. Yes, my whole career as a web developer started with Microsoft ASP back in the 1990s, which being a BASIC scripting language was a skill I built on something I learned as a spotty kid long before I reached university.
"But the country needs engineers!" I hear you say. And I'd have to agree with you there. Though I think the meaning most people would ascribe to that sentence is rather different to the meaning I would ascribe to it.
To me, the country needs engineers rather than simply people with engineering degrees at all costs. In other words, the country needs as its engineers people who are born to engineering as a vocation, a gift even. It's never been viewed as something particularly special but it should be, I doubt I'll hear many middle-class parents enthusing about their offspring's aptitude for Meccano or coding in the same way they would if their little Tarquin turned out to be a musical prodigy. And just as there are born engineers, so are there born art historians and even born media students who would be utterly wasted on an engineering course.
If we have created a world in which tertiary education is near-mandatory and a degree certificate is required to embark on careers for which a school certificate would have been required for our grandparents' generation (and yes, I count my career among those), it seems to me crazy to force people into degree courses purely for ideological reasons that they are never going to find any value from and which will have little bearing on their eventual careers.
Far better to have degree courses on which places are earned by merit and whose subjects depend on the aptitude of the student. Oh wait, wasn't that what we had twenty years ago?