OK then, let’s have a good snigger. Let’s all look at the list of these so-called degrees, and sneer at the pathetic delusions of the students who are taking them. In the saloon bars of England, it is by now a settled conviction that the university system is riddled with a kind of intellectual dry rot, and it is called the Mickey Mouse degree.
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After three years of taxpayer-funded debauch, these young people will graduate, and then the poor saps will enter the workplace with an academic qualification that is about as valuable as membership of the Desperate Dan Pie Eaters’ Club, and about as intellectually distinguished as a third-place rosette in a terrier show. It is called a Degree, and in the view of saloon bar man, it is a con, a scam, and a disgrace.
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Kids these days! says our man with the pint of Stella, slapping The Daily Telegraph on the bar. Look at the rubbish they study! ‘Ere, he says, finding an account of the recent investigation by the Taxpayers’ Alliance, which has compiled a list of the 401 “non-courses” being offered by our universities.
In a satirically portentous tone he reads out the brochure of Marjon College in Plymouth, which really is offering a three-year BA (Hons) degree in Outdoor Adventure With Philosophy.
Yes, he says with incredulous sarcasm, the dons at Marjon College give instruction in the ancient discipline of Outdoor Adventure by examining its “underpinning philosophy, historical antecedents, significant influences, environmental and sustainable aspects and current trends”; and just in case you thought that wasn’t quite rigorous enough, they guarantee that “the modules will include elements such as journeys, environmental management, creative indoor study and spirituality”.
Absurd! cries saloon bar man, and then jabs his finger at yet greater absurdities: a course at the University of Glamorgan in “Science: Fiction and Culture”; and get this – the Welsh College of Horticulture is offering anyone with four Cs at GCSE the chance to study for an Honours degree in “Equestrian Psychology”! It’s a degree in horse whispering! he says. It’s bonkers.
Why, he asks rhetorically, are we paying for students to waste their time on these Mickey Mouse courses, when it is perfectly obvious what they should be doing. Trades! Skills! Craft! This country doesn’t need more bleeding degrees in media studies and whispering into horses’ ears! What we need is people who can fix my septic tank! We need more plumbers,” he raves, and it’s not just because he resents paying so much for his Polish plumber; it’s because the whole university business is – in his view – such a cruel deception on so many young people. They rack up an average of £13,000 of debt for some noddy qualification when they would have been far better off applying for a job, clearing the personality tests given by companies right after leaving school and engaging in the old-fashioned apprenticeship.
That’s what he thinks; and that, I bet, is not a million miles from the view of many eminent readers.
And yet I have to say that this view of higher education – pandemic in Middle Britain – is hypocritical, patronising and wrong. I say boo to the Taxpayers’ Alliance, and up with Mickey Mouse courses, and here’s why.
The saloon bar view is hypocritical, in the sense that it is always worth interrogating the saloon bar critics about their aspirations for their own children or grandchildren. Would they like them to have degrees? Or would they like them to have some kind of explicitly vocational training?
It is notable how often a critic of university expansion is still keen for his or her own children to go there, while a vocational qualification is viewed as an excellent option for someone else’s children.
It is patronising, in that you really can’t tell, just by reading a course title, whether it is any good or not, and whether it will be of any intellectual or financial benefit to the student.
The other day my normally humane and reasonable colleague Andrew O’Hagan paraded the idea of a degree in “Artificial Intelligence”, as though it were intrinsically risible, and for 20 years we have all been scoffing at degrees in “media studies”.
But AI is one of the most potentially interesting growth areas in computer science; and the truth about Media Studies is that its graduates have very high rates of employment and remuneration.
Of course there are mistakes, and of course there are a great many students who drop out, get depressed, or feel they have done the wrong thing with their lives.
But the final judge of the value of a degree is the market, and in spite of all the expansion it is still the case that university graduates have a big salary premium over non-graduates. The market is working more efficiently now that students have a direct financial stake in the matter, a financial risk, and an incentive not to waste their time on a course that no employer will value.
It is ridiculous for these saloon-bar critics to denounce “Mickey Mouse” degrees, and say that the students would be better off doing vocational courses – when the whole point is that these degrees are very largely vocational.
We can laugh at degrees in Aromatherapy and Equine Science, but they are just as vocational as degrees in Law or Medicine, except that they are tailored to the enormous expansion of the service economy.
It is rubbish to claim that these odd-sounding courses are somehow devaluing the Great British Degree. Everyone knows that a First Class degree in Physics from Cambridge is not the same as a First in Equine Management from the University of Lincoln, and the real scandal is that they both cost the student the same.
There again, who is to say where a Mickey Mouse course may lead?
The last time I looked, Disney had revenues of 33 billion dollars a year – and if any university offered a course in the Life and Works of Mickey Mouse, I wouldn’t blame them in the least.