Why is Liam Burns wrong?

It’s not often that I actually get angry.*

I became aware of Liam Burns’ comments on university earlier today, thanks to Ed West’s blog at The Telegraph. Specifically, this statement:

The reality is you need that bit of paper to get into better jobs with greater earning potential and influence. So we want as many people to get one as possible, at the expense of quality if necessary.

This is why he makes me angry.

I understand that the number of students going to university (and the number of universities) has expanded rapidly over my lifetime – in reality, mostly during my secondary education, if I’m honest. However, aside from the fact that this means more people have degrees, it doesn’t mean that those “pieces of paper” equal a greater ability to interact in the current workplace. A degree is not a qualification like an A Level – it is a certificate that demonstrates further and higher education at a university.

Burns seems to lump all students and their degrees together – not only causing hyperinflation of the value of a degree, but also reducing the value of the greatest to the lowest common denominator. I worked hard to get into a good university, and to get a good degree from it. The value of a degree is not inherent, it is always dependent on location and class. There is a reason why Oxbridge and Harvard are spoken highly of.

Burns also commented that universities today are vehicles for social change. Arguably, yes they are – indeed, the success of this is a matter of great debate. Nevertheless, Burns is confusing purpose with possibility. I buy a spade so that I might dig up my garden.** The spade itself is designed to dig – irrespective of what it is used to dig up. I’d buy a different spade to shovel shit.

The purpose of university education will always be to learn.

* See Rule Three.

** I haven’t got a dog, you see. Come to think of it, neither do I have a garden.

Why is Liam Burns wrong?

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