Jackie Lavin was right to question if costly college degrees pay off
Donal Lynch agrees that university students should insist on being given a purposeful path to meaningful work
Jackie Lavin doesn't look like a woman who wants, or needs, anyone's pity, but as she briefly became the most slagged-off person in the country last week it was hard not to feel a small twinge of sympathy. In her contribution to the Prime Time debate, during which she baldly suggested that universities could better prepare students for the real world and achieve the same results in less time, Jackie had apparently forgotten that such opinions are not allowed – because Ireland is the world leader in educational snobbery.
Stupider countries, like America, or England, might allow themselves to debate whether a college education is worth its vast price tag, but here at home there is such an unthinking reverence for third level that any attempt to question how it runs or how much it costs in its current form is roundly dismissed as philistinism.
As taxpayers we, in large part, foot the bill to allow each young person a few years in the soft-focus quest to find themselves without ever really asking the question if this is worth the money. Industry leaders plead with successive education ministers to take steps to produce better graduates, with qualifications society actually needs, but to no avail. Students riot if their college demands an extra few quid in fees from them, but upon graduation they'll meekly take their place in the dole queues without wondering whether their three to four years in academia ought to have saved them from such a fate and whether that in itself might be worth rioting for.
And invariably when the whole subject is debated, the loudest and most adamant voices are those of vested interests: academics who bridle at any suggestion that the job universities do of intellectually readying our young people for their next step in life is just not good enough. Teaching, they sniff, is only part of the point of a university.
Of course it's not all, or even mostly, the fault of the academics. The world of work often makes our education system ridiculous by not valuing it in the right way, or at all. The professions need to do their bit and link up more meaningfully with education. I spent four years doing a law degree but I am not even close to being a lawyer. In the profession I'm in, not even a masters in the subject would really help carry much weight in terms of landing a job. It is in fact little wonder that I am a professional bullshitter. As a nation Ireland has always believed in a theoretical education for a theoretical education's sake and placed puzzlingly high value on esoteric – or 'bullshit', to use the technical term – subjects.
Historically our second-level system has almost prided itself on being gloriously useless as a means of preparing anyone for anything – including third level. It took years after free education was brought in to weed out Latin as a compulsory subject (although the Irish language clings on still). If a young person managed to get through the turgid theory of secondary school they had a chance for more of the same in college. Being lumped in "the tech" instead of a proper university like Trinity or UCD was a source of shame – learning a useable skill was seen as faintly vulgar. Many people went to university more for the connections than the education. Although this has changed somewhat, there is still no real expectation that education should do anything other than faintly 'improve' you.
In latter years our third-level system has become bloated beyond all recognition. Herds of rudderless young people pack out arts degrees in service of the orthodoxy that everyone, no matter what their aptitude, interest or ability, should go to college.
And if you don't make it into an arts degree there is a whole ecosystem of Post-Leaving Cert courses and private colleges to join. Sitting in a classroom, taking notes, sleepily filling your head with someone else's theories, is still prized above real world drive and initiative.
Nobody is allowed to question this. Even Barack Obama, when he timorously suggested that "folks can make a lot more" by learning a trade "than they might with an art history degree" was forced to apologise by an irate art history professor. But a lot of people felt he was right.
I entered college in the late Nineties when the spoiled children of the Celtic Tiger chose college courses the way a Russian oligarch's wife chooses jewels, and the chasm between the real world and university undergraduates was never wider. There were jobs aplenty, and three years seemed like a perfectly reasonable amount of time to spend arsing around UCD. We'd already spent two decades acquiring useless information in school, so doing so on our own terms was exhilarating.
We took subjects like bookbinding, Hebrew, Greek mythology and basically anything with the words 'studies' or 'theory' after it. We looked pityingly on the poor fools who had to do 40 hours a week in engineering or endure the wrinkle-inducing hell of actuary. It's possible that we were learning what Brian Lucey – Jackie Lavin's debate adversary – calls 'critical thinking' during those years and that our souls were nurtured by our subject-choice fripperies. But I think, actually, most of us would have felt much more nurtured by a high paying and meaningful job upon graduation.
The lesson of the horror of the last six years is that we can no longer afford such bullshit. Our young people need to be told that their youth will extend past their university days and that they will be on their own and it will be expensive. The colleges are in the business – and it is a business – of getting them in, getting them processed, and getting them out. Students need, as Jackie Lavin suggested, to value their own time and insist on being given a path to the life purpose that comes with meaningful work. Or to insist that they want more than to wait out the economic bad times in education. Perhaps most importantly they should know that critical thinking, appreciation of art and the life of the mind are not exclusively the provenance of colleges. The real achievers are autodidacts who keep learning through their own lives.
Patrick Kavanagh, who knew a thing or two about the value of art, the importance of work, and the pain of poverty, once wrote that we can "fly to knowledge" without ever going to college. These are words to live by, although you can be sure that if he were around today he'd get called a philistine for that on Twitter.