UK universities are being pressured toward courses that have economic use. What is the point of education? Do we study to earn or to learn?

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No, really, what is the point? I ask this in light of recent UK government potential demands on universities that they are putting out to consultation. Known as “public comment” in the U.S., this is where the government seeks input from the public and stakeholders concerning a proposed change of policy or similar, partly to test the waters of public opinion. In this case, a group of university figures together with the government have expressed their desire to get rid of “low-quality courses.”

Basically, the government wants to penalize universities or courses if fewer than 60% are in professional jobs or studying for a further degree within 15 months of graduating, among a number of other stipulations.

As a result of this, and highlighting the very vocational approach to university education, Sheffield Hallam University has pulled its English Literature course for next year.

Not surprisingly, this generated some big pushback, including literary luminaries such as His Dark Materials author Phillip Pullman, who said that the study of literature “should not be a luxury for a wealthy minority of spoilt and privileged aesthetes.” He added, “Without literature, without music and art and dance and drama, people young and old alike will perish of mental and emotional and imaginative starvation. We really do have a government of barbarians.”

This bears a philosophical discussion of this maxim: “One studies to earn not to learn.” Is this correct?

Universities are making cuts to courses like these in a climate where they are seen by the government as “low-value.” Author Sarah Perry cut straight to the heart of the philosophical matter when she told The Guardian:

I suspect this is only the latest symptom in the disease creeping across education at all levels, in which learning has been stripped of everything but the most utilitarian aims, designed to form minds into nothing but cogs in the capitalist machine. It’s dismal and dehumanizing, and I’m afraid its effects will be far-reaching.

There has never been such a demand for the accountability of the expenditure of government funds. On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense—we want to know that our taxes are being well spent—but on the other hand, it becomes very dry and tiring to account for every cent and penny spent by the state, and not a little utilitarian, as Perry called it.

And this is where philosophy comes in. When we talk about any claim being grounded, we invoke the Munchhausen Trilemma, whereby claims can only be grounded in three ways:

  1. An infinite regress (A because B because C because…).
  2. A circle (A because B because C because A).
  3. An axiom or self-evident truth (A, just because).

When we talk about morality, we often seek to find a moral currency that is nonderivative—you can’t derive it further and further back past a certain point (avoiding an infinite regress):

June: Why did you do A?
Adi: Because of B
June: Why B?
Adi: Because of C.
June: Why C?
Adi: Because it’s just good, that’s why. Self-evidently so.

For the last answer there, we might have happiness (pleasure or lack of pain) or wellbeing as some axiomatic foundation stone.

June: Why did you do that?
Adi: Well, because it just makes me/them/us happy.
June: Why do you/they want to be happy?
Adi: Because that’s just an obviously good state of affairs.

When you talk to people in everyday conversations about their child or friend or themselves, you often hear “As long as they are happy.” It is no fluke that this is so often said. It’s because happiness is nonderivative. You aren’t happy for another reason—it grounds the regress of reasoning.

Okay, so why all this?

Well, as Sarah Perry said, education now has the “most utilitarian aims, designed to form minds into nothing but cogs in the capitalist machine.”

But what is the “utility” of education? Why do we do it? What is the nonderivative currency that underwrites why we do it?

Now, there is a whole fascinating discussion to be had here (that is perhaps at the nub of this debate) as to whether knowledge has any intrinsic value at all (valuable in and of itself) or whether the value of knowledge is always extrinsic (knowledge is only good for what it can obtain).

Essentially, a government is more interested in jobs than well-being or happiness, because happiness doesn’t pay for bombs or the police force or hospitals. Jobs create taxes and they stimulate the economy that creates taxes, and the government wants more tax income. Let us forget for a moment that increasing well-being can reduce costs for the government, and let us see it as simplistically as it most probably is.

Education is a means to a job’s end. If you get a good education, you are more likely to get a good job, so the theory goes. Also, a better-educated workforce can compete more ably in the global marketplace and gain a competitive advantage for a nation. Education can look like many different things: vocational courses like bricklaying, electronics, particle physics, civil engineering… Oh, and philosophy.

One of the UK government’s education ministers, Michelle Donelan, stated, “Courses that do not lead students on to work or further study fail both the students who pour their time and effort in, and the taxpayer, who picks up a substantial portion of the cost.” It is worth checking out the consultation and advice set out by Universities UK, with their core metrics and contextual metrics. Although there are some elements that seem sensible, most of the points are concerned with supporting economic growth where graduate prospects are simply employment prospects.

In simple terms, the ends for the government are jobs and tax income. This is something of an (economics-based) pragmatist approach to education

But the ends for human beings, when we consider existential matters, are not a job or even income. These are means to the eventual end of happiness (or well-being).

By reducing the variety of what we can learn about in our educational establishments, we are reducing the richness of our existence, and the joy we, as humans, can get from these creative, not-so-utilitarian subjects.

Of course, the arts have been crucial for us during the lockdown and the pandemic. Streaming platforms have made a killing by pumping out content that depends solely on writers and actors from within the humanities. So one can also build up a utilitarian case for at least some of these humanities courses.

Where universities are still somewhat funded by taxpayers in the UK to the tune of about 45%, the UK government does have a horse in this race. But there is something so stark and, as mentioned, dehumanizing about being so utterly and completely mercenary and vocational about education. One could also imagine that this might also lead to some kind of elitism or inequality whereby humanities subjects are out of reach to those unable to afford the luxury of studying them.

In the 20th century, pragmatist philosopher John Dewey developed a different pragmatist philosophy than thinkers like Charles Pierce in the economics mold stated above. Dewey argued that “education should serve an intrinsic purpose: education was a good in itself and children became fully developed as people because of it.” In this way, education should develop our citizenship more in a way that education in Ancient Greece was seen.

So there is a tension between the desire to see education as a holistic approach to human enrichment, and a means to an economic end.

These contrary positions can be seen at the heart of educational thinking. For example, let us travel to Australia, where the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians states:

All young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens.

And at the same time, the Australian Department of Education believes:

By lifting outcomes, the government helps to secure Australia’s economic and social prosperity.

It is always dangerous to present an either-or false dichotomy. Of course, in our capitalist system, jobs are necessary, and having a job is one of the primary ways to provide food, warmth, and shelter, all necessary components of wellbeing. These ideas are perhaps inextricably linked to at least some degree.

But what, really, is the meaning of our lives? Just take a trip around YouTube to see the vast cornucopia of content aimed at a multitude of interests, and not all of those interests are about making money. We love learning. We love understanding. We love being intellectually challenged. These ideas are certainly what float my boat.

Then again, I have had to try and monetize my own desire for this in a way that I can have such jobs as the ones I have, doing the things I love doing, in terms of also educating myself in a way that presents as almost intrinsically valuable.

So there is a tension between the desire to see education as a holistic approach to human enrichment, and a means to an economic end.

Now, there is a whole fascinating discussion to be had here that is perhaps at the nub of this debate: does knowledge have any intrinsic value at all (valuable in and of itself) or is the value of knowledge always extrinsic (knowledge is only good for what it can obtain)?

We have this tension still: There is no such thing as a free lunch, sure, but is the kind of world we want to live in one of only living to work rather than working to live? And to live is arguably to learn.

Imagine designing a universe yourself. What would you want for the sentient creatures within it? Where would education fit and where would jobs. If jobs are a necessity in order to obtain other goals and desires, then how much should governments be making education pragmatically and economically utilitarian? Should economics be more formally recognized as merely a means to a greater end of well-being?

If we were to recognize much more overtly and publicly that our governments were there for the primary goal of optimizing the well-being of its citizens, then perhaps the economics-based pragmatic ideal such as the one in question would not so hastily be sought.

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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