‘Through their own folly they perished – fools’ – A Health Warning to Higher Education

“Yet even so he saved not his comrades, though he desired it sore, for through their own blind folly they perished—fools, who devoured the kine of Helios Hyperion.” – Homer, Odyssey I

If in the event that someone was so desperate as to ask me for just one piece of advice, right now it would be to postpone any prospective plans of going to university to study the arts or social sciences, by-pass it completely if at all possible. The primary reason being, that such a degree has, unsurprisingly, lost so much of its value as to render it practically useless. On the surface, this advice might seem preposterous (just how will one progress in society?), but at the moment I am inclined to believe it to be sound. Why then, do I advise the postponement of a university education?

The Irish Times recently reported that there is an estimated 100,000 unemployed graduates in Ireland, which makes for just over a fifth of the total number of unemployed in Ireland in 2012. In short, graduates are entering a strained and over-subscribed labour market that does not require the expertise, if any, that a university degree provides. A quick perusal of the skill requirements of even
the most menial of jobs will show that ‘real world’ experience trumps a degree every time, and so a vicious circle emerges: one needs experience to get a job, but one cannot get experience without a job. The result is an ‘educated’ sector that is not qualified, is deflated and increasingly aimless. Consequently, if it is not viable to seek a career change, and in many cases it isn’t, the only way to
use one’s degree is to look to post-graduate study, be it through a taught MA, Higher Diploma in Education or structured PhD. Unfortunately, the problem with this is that post-graduate courses are now prone to flooding, in the same way that undergraduate courses have been and continue to be. Sadly however, it appears that the trend is continuing. Of the applicants to higher education this
year, over 42% applied for courses in arts or social science:

‘This year, more than 8,800 students opted for higher-degree science as their first choice while 5,400
opted for engineering and technology. This is still dwarfed by the 15,600 who made arts or social
science their first preference.’ (Irish Times, March 2012)

The ease with which higher education can be accessed, as facilitated by the government, who pays for most if not all of it, along with the relative ease with which people can attain degrees has made going to university a very attractive route for young adults in Ireland, but it is ultimately detrimental to the value of education itself. Many campuses are already over-crowded and lecture halls unfit for
purpose; they are littered with apathetic hordes and faux-revolutionaries. Most are drawn to university not by the noble pursuit of knowledge or even the hope of carving out a decent existence, but by the lurid allure of the disgusting party life-style, which has apparently seized society by the scruff of the neck (see dreadful programmes such as Skins, Jersey Shore and Tallafornia). This is
not socialising, this is sheer, unrestrained mindlessness. To call the modern Irish university a zoo would be an insult to animals.

A recent article in Sin (the student newspaper of the National University of Ireland, Galway) reported that drunken students routinely harass a prominent group of peaceful protesters in Galway, sometimes employing glass bottles as missiles in addition to their ignorant verbal assaults. However, it is during events such as the infamous misnomer ‘RAG Week’ that swathes of students (and admittedly other non-student stragglers) embarrass themselves beyond repair. Youtube videos show mobs of inebriated adults stupidly engaged in primitive chanting, acting in an intimidating and destructive manner. Yet, amazingly, local politicians have implicitly excused these adults for their outrageous behaviour. Labour councillor Billy Cameron, in what must surely be construed as pandering to the student vote (if that even exists any more), said that while he did not condone the actions of drunken students, he thought that the responsibility ultimately lies with pubs and clubs who, as he suggests, ‘facilitate’ such despicable behaviour. In one fell swoop, Cameron granted a licence to grown adults to behave like unmannered, ill-disciplined children. Is it really any wonder that Ireland is where it is with such ludicrous public acceptance of such deplorable convention? Interestingly, and I’m not sure if this was deliberate on the part of the editor, but under the aforementioned article was a piece called ‘Overheard in NUI Galway’ which recounts some of the, perhaps more absurd (perhaps not), overheard conversations on campus. Without quoting them here, rest assured that it will not fill one with confidence for the welfare of future Irish generations.

So, if a lack of clear opportunity at the end of the tunnel isn’t enough to dissuade you from pursuing a degree in the arts or social sciences at present, then the untethered debauchery and the insufferable pseudo-intellectualism of many of your peers should ultimately put you off, that is, unless you happen to be among the wretched yourself, in which case, you will no doubt revel as the proverbial pig in… Does an alternative currently exist? It seems that our newest Elysium is now Canada, which is crying out for skilled tradesmen and labourers, but the images of recent job expos have shown the harsh reality that these positions too will be grossly over subscribed. What, then, is the solution? To my mind, a reform of the manner in which one can enter higher education would be a start. From there, standards within higher education itself can be raised. Put simply, the value of a higher
education must be restored.

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About Ryan

Devout practitioner of the idea "gnōthi seauton".

9 responses to “‘Through their own folly they perished – fools’ – A Health Warning to Higher Education”

  1. finishedatlast says :

    Nice work, very well written. i agree with you sentiment. A few years in the misery of the minimum wage workforce really made me appreciate my time in college.

    • ryanyllek says :

      Cheers. The article was written primarily to encourage debate, or raise the issue, of the value of education in Ireland today. I do not, unfortunately, offer any solutions, so maybe I could explore that as a follow-up. Watch this space.

  2. finishedatlast says :

    There is no doubt that the value of a degree has been devalued somewhat. The opening up of third level education has resulted in greater numbers of people in college and with this there are a greater number of wasters and also a greater number of wasters with degrees.
    Although I would imagine that there has always been a certain proportion of the student body more interested in partying and faux revolutionaries than the pure pursuit of adding to the intellectual canon of society. The characitures of the BBC’s Young Ones spring to mind.
    The sheer vloume of students that apply to the arts is paying for the more costly and economically significant courses means that we are lumbered with a system where the arts is a come one come all shop to finance the courses which bring in Research and Development money and international kudos that sees you climb up the lamentable league tables that the Sunday Times are so fond of.

    • docconcoct says :

      I agree that ryanyllek is onto something here but perhaps the message comes across over zealous. While I accept the value of a degree has diminished and the environment may not be ideal I’m not sure the advice given can be generalised for all.

      Certainly alternatives to jumping head first into a degree should be encouraged and explored. It must be accepted as fact that not everyone is suited to an academic environment. This may sound like a loaded statement but allow me to clarify. By ‘not suited’ I mean that not everyone will enjoy, relish or be driven by academic pursuits. Some people may be more suited to artistic or more hands on endeavours for example. I agree that time in ‘the real world’ is a good thing and certainly focuses a persons desires with regard to their future goals. There is far too much emphasis placed on attending 3rd level education straight from 2nd and almost a negative outlook at choosing an alternative path.

      It took me years in the work force to realise that I was finally prepared to have a serious go at 3rd level and once I began my degree (in the arts) I felt at home and had the necessary drive to accomplish what I wanted from the course.

      Some students, as pointed out in the piece, see a degree course as nothing more than an excuse to party care, and responsibility, free. Some of the behaviour is mind boggling in this respect. Perhaps these are the very candidates that would benefit from trying their hand at joining the work force (provided jobs are available) to get a taste of responsibility and also to fund their desired lifestyle. That said, I think it would be a knee-jerk reaction to point the finger at students for solely being responsible for unruly behaviour. It should be noted that large student events attract peers that may not attend the local university and may in fact not be students at all but members of the work force. This being the case it is more a reflection on the society as a whole and not the calibre of student attending 3rd level.

      If I was asked to give advice I would not have a blanket answer. I’d ask the seeker what it is they wanted from their working life and specifically university and encourage them to think hard before making a decision. While admittedly the overcrowding and other annoyances can make entry into the arts a chore at times, it does not mean it is not possible for a person to gain something from the experience.

      Jobs may not be aplenty but there are new opportunities afforded to students by studying. New skills can be garnered which can be transferable into other areas of life (even something as seemingly trivial as analytical thinking) and with a thriving societies scene at most universities there really is a host of potential rewards other than just the formal training received.

      ryanyllek suggests “postpone any prospective plans of going to university to study the arts or social sciences,” and this is pretty sound advice when someone is unsure if university is for them, however; “by-pass it completely if at all possible” is not something I believe should be encouraged as a better alternative but rather just one of many options.

      As finishedatlast has been known to say, grass roots change is the order of the day. Irish society is a mess. Apathy reigns supreme and the so called Irish drinking ‘culture’ (an abuse of the word) leaves a bad taste in the mouth when there is so much more to offer from the island. I enjoy drinking my fair share of pints once every couple of weeks and will change that for nobody, only myself or future responsibilities, however it is a sad reflection that the majority of social events on the island revolve around alcohol consumption. Perhaps it is time to usher in an alternative culture to embrace with glee and a new political approach to galvanise the walking dead of Ireland. Something will eventually have to give and I’m sure the human race is capable of formulating an alternative to the way things are done now.

      As far as studying the arts and social sciences? Well, if you think it’s for you go for it. You are the master of your own destiny.

  3. Peter Ferguson says :

    As an Arts student, I totally agree. Students choose arts as the de facto ‘I don’t know what I want to do with my life’ course. It is heavily populated with people who have no interest in the topics they have chosen. Free fees has been a double edged sword. It has enabled working class joes like myself to gain a 3rd level education but it also allows people to attend college just for the hell of it as there is no personal cost. These people generally choose Arts and they ruin the experience for those who actually want to learn. I think the problem may be solved by the current economic climate as free fees may eventually be revoked. With their course costing 5 grand a year people may start taking their education more seriously or their parents may put pressure on their children if they are ones paying the fees. Also attendance figures will drop and the casual student will not attend if it is going to cost them. However as I said, double-edged sword, it will also deny an education to the working class who do want to educate themselves.

    • finishedatlast says :

      In fairness Pater take a good look around you at college and I think you’ll find very few working class kids. In my experience and from the brief look we took at the matter in sociology, it is the middle classes that have benefited from free education. Working class kids are much more prevalent in Institutes of technology, I speak from the experience of attending one for two non consecutive years, but are still a rare sight in University and even more so in arts. I would go as far as to say that the majority of wrking class people in Arts are mature students.
      The middle class has certainly been bloated to the extreme in the past 30 years and the current economic downturn will see it contract. Unfortunatly it looks like free fees will go or at least be replace by stealth charges and this is a real shame because although it didnot have the desired effect of bring more working class people into higher level education, it certainly opened the door for me.
      it will be interesting to see the make up of first year arts in about 10 years time.

  4. cormac says :

    The first sentence renders the article unclear. Are you suggesting that prospective students of the social sciences should think twice, or all prospective students?

    • ryanyllek says :

      Being, as I am, an arts grad-student, I suppose it is generally aimed at those who are considering arts/social science, but I’d say to all prospective students to think long and hard about what area they’d like to study and once there, to fully appreciate it.

      Of course it’s not the same for everyone and as has been said, one shoe does not fit all. I spoke with a friend who is currently doing a PhD in Astrophysics and he said that his experience of college was outstanding and that he loves it. I suspect that might be because there are probably very few bluffers studying science!

      The article is clearly coloured by my own experience of college and some can see past the overcrowding and the low standards. I was and am disgusted by it.

      I think alternatives to a university education need to be seriously explored (not sure what, just yet) and we need to be a lot more unforgiving in the academic selection process especially when one is considered to be an adult.

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