I have been more than happy, as a parent, to see our children take very different career paths, neither of which has, as yet, entailed taking a degree. Naturally, neither has been tempted into teaching.
And, until now, I’d seen myself as an expert on the Ucas process and procedure. After all, when I was a sixth-form tutor, I wrote enough references, synthesising subject reports with a wider view of my students’ capabilities and potential for the courses they’d set their hearts on.
But, last weekend, I entered a new phase as a parent – the ritual of the university open day – for our equestrian-minded daughter. It poured with rain, but that didn’t put a dampener on the occasion: we simply got wet as we moved from building to building, checking out the accommodation, asking basic questions about costs – and, of course, checking out the facilities outdoors.
I had never expected to hear, as we did in the vice-principal's welcome, about where some students’ passion for biology could lead. Stress is usually applied to humans in my walk of life, so it was a bit of a facer to consider students researching stress in fish or horses – let alone to imagine them presenting papers on the subject at international conferences.
I wonder whether our new societal fervour for saving the planet might lead to a greater premium being placed on land-based or applied-science degrees. Perhaps these, more than the coldness of economics or the law, should be the way forward. In the cities, it’s so easy to lose touch with the natural world, no matter how much anyone wishes to save it for future generations.
I digress only slightly. Because, as the artificial-intelligence marketing pitch becomes ever more extreme, could it be that working with animals might be one of the few occupations in which human expertise reigns supreme? Hard to imagine an AI robot bonding with a flighty young horse, somehow.
As every careers teacher will tell you, the jobs of tomorrow haven’t yet been invented. And the corollary of this is that the well-worn paths of today might not survive even the next decade or so.
So should we still be pushing young people into degrees that work for today’s ecology and economy – incurring very large financial expense, which will be borne into the future – and perhaps against their natural inclination?
Not the right option
For some, university is simply not the right option. It would be great to see better investment in apprenticeships below degree level, to enable all young people to have recognisable education or training that will open doors for them.
Sadly, apprenticeships, as well as university places, have of late become commodified. It’s no longer enough to have one: some are more prestigious than others, according to the type of industry. Hi-tech is top of the tree, especially if it’s post-degree. Are we entering a situation where, in apprenticeships, society is less egalitarian and more stratified?
So last weekend, in a small agricultural college whose degree courses are accredited by a larger university, I looked with fresh eyes at what experience this type of degree had to offer. The college has all the right kitemarks: a gold standard for the quality of its teaching (in the top 22 per cent).
But what really matters is its ethos. The staff are realistic about students’ need to work as well as study – in fact, getting jobs in the equine industry is seen as an excellent way to expand knowledge and skills. The timetable is substantial, giving whole days of teaching. And it’s understood that some students can deal much better with scientific subjects, such as biology, when the concepts are clearly linked to the animals they care most about.
The tutors – not surprisingly – are able to point to former students who have found unusual and fulfilling careers; the college's post-degree employment figures are very good. And, in these days when students’ mental health is seen as more fragile than in former times, the level of supervision is reassuring.
But most of all, the vibe was right.
The whole experience reinforced my belief that choosing the best university isn’t about prestige and high earning power as the endgame – though I accept that there is a highly competitive market for that. In our case, I rather think that the student loan about to be spent will be better directed towards a smaller college that encourages excellence in (forgive the pun) fields less publicly acclaimed and more personally relevant.
No one knows what changes Brexit will bring to our existing industries and service sector. So perhaps the best things a university course can provide are possible connections to future employment, wide-ranging experience, an academic framework and hopefully a flexible mindset to offset the many challenges and frustrations that lie ahead for all of us.
Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama at a school in the South of England