July 16, 2023•1,144 words
This post is a response to a recent idea which, if implemented, would force English universities to impose caps on the numbers of students on "low-value" degrees. There are many things to dislike about this idea - you can get started here - but instead, I wanted to focus on the positive. Here is a very subjective list of reasons why a "low-value" degree is anything but.
- You decide on your values, and a degree helps you live that choice. This is perhaps the most obvious way to start that debate. "Low-value" according to whose standards? A millionaire politician's? Then we're all falling short. There are many social, international, and economic benefits to arts, humanities, and social sciences. But the ultimate value is personal. It starts with you, and - through the learning - grows with you.
- Every degree is, really, just a signal of a willingness to learn more. The illusion that you're done with study after graduating college, that you're ready to function in the world without ever picking up a top-up course, or a book - well, that's just an illusion. You're not done. This was true when today's politicians graduated, and it's even truer today, when the effort to make machines "learn" takes so much of humans' time. Get the degree you want. Its value will be the learning experience.
- "Value" is not the only way to measure learning. Science, art, understanding - none of these fit neatly into spreadsheets. None of these progress in nice little upward curves toward a well-understood (and monetized) end goal. Learning means false starts, dead ends, uncertainty, more questions than answers. It means going off on tangents, going wide as well as deep, without a clear idea of "value" in mind. Pick a degree which lets you do that - and defend your right to learn without measurable value.
- "Value" is not even the only way to measure "value"! Other ways of thinking about value are available. Capitalism's greatest trick has always been to insist on its inevitability. Nowadays, as recent business models and economies show signs of weakness, we begin to remember what was always there: different ways of valuing time, ideas, knowledge, exchanges, contributions. Don't let a sad dude with a clipboard dictate what your life is worth - you can see, all around you, how wrong and wrongful they've been so far.
- "Value" changes. Faster than we realize. Four years ago, there probably weren't that many projects in medicine that dealt with immunology. It was on people's radars, but didn't rank highly in anyone's "value" spreadsheet. Covid changed all that. As we get used to the Covid world, we see value in learning about chronic diseases - something we didn't use to value, either. And that's just one discipline, one we thought we'd "worked out" when it came to value. You could probably give me more examples from your disciplines. Value shifts, so there's little point in always chasing it as the only predictor.
- Every learning experience makes you less lonely. I'm currently working through three or four little learning projects. I enjoy what I'm learning, but even more, I am grateful for the connection to the people I'm learning with / from. Waiting until you're ready for a "high-value" degree might mean you're missing out on the camaraderie you'll get from the "low-value" choice. And for many of us, being connected to others who share a journey is a powerful motivator.
- Sometimes, "low-value" is a political label for something else. It's no coincidence that the plan I referred to above comes from a political party leader, clutching at straws before a likely election defeat, preparing the ground for the future. In capitalism, "high-value" will be their synonym for "productive" or "compliant" or "unproblematic" - the kinds of labor force and voters any party would wish for. It follows that "low-value" might sometimes really mean "quirky" or "punk" or "independent" or "free-thinking", and all politicians hate that kind of populace - no matter what they tell you. Chances are, you're not going to pick a degree with the view of being 100% political about it the whole time. But it's important to question the label slapped on it by the powers-that-be. If it's clear that there's no economic basis for labelling your course "low-value", then why would you let false signals dissuade you from your study?
- If "low-value" means "messy and human", then maybe that's just what we need. Here's one of education's recent worst-kept secrets: nobody has a clue how to prepare you for a world in which machines are capable of the things they're doing now. Not Harvard, not Oxbridge, not your local community college. Certainly not a politician on a mission to "fix" education. We're all in for a wild ride, just to catch up to where our computers are right now. And as for the future - the folks who shape it are not the Ivy League, not the Fortune 500 - they're the little guys with laptops in their flats. All that's to say - we'll need humanity, connection, communities, vulnerability, as we go on that journey. Today's "low-value" might yet flip around. It's anyone's guess.
- "Low-value" degrees might be the best way to benefit from college. Here's another badly-kept secret about higher education: almost every university is struggling to survive. The Guardian article I linked to above has a surprising statistic waiting for us in its last paragraph: English universities are actually losing money on each domestic undergraduate degree they offer. That tells me all I need to know about how "value" gets calculated in that system. Here's a slightly perverse counter-argument: instead of rolling over and getting the "high-value" degree which everyone thinks you'll benefit from, why not pick the "low-value" choice and roll your own education? We've all seen how successful the system is at generating value (ie, it can rarely even keep value for itself). In a few decades, universities as we know them might have changed beyond recognition. A flexible, interesting degree might be the best way to use what they still have to offer.
- Learning the art of quitting is also essential. You won't hear this from your employers, or your politicians, or your college professors. But sometimes, the best option available to us is to change our mind, to pivot, to make a new plan. "Low-value" degrees are often seen as the ones which people drop out of more frequently. Discouraging this behaviour would make sense if all these decisions were ill-judged. They're not: some of capitalism's most celebrated success stories started with dropping out of college. But even if you won't get that - a course which helps you practice the art of quitting, and the skill of moving beyond sunken costs, is a valuable lesson in itself.