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University and rites of passage

September 29, 2013


Yesterday was one of those very important landmarks in life as I took my elder son to start his university career in Leicester.

Yesterday is the right word as of course it only seems yesterday since I started at University myself such is the speed with which, as the psalm states, “Time, like an ever rolling stream bears all its sons away.”

I look back with particular fondness at my time at University.  In those days it was a more unusual experience with less than 10% of the population going to higher education compared to the 40% that do so today.  Indeed I enjoyed the special distinction, even in 1981,  of being the very first member of the Jenkins family to go and was acutely aware of the privilege I was enjoying which had been denied to my parents, both of whom were more than capable of having benefitted from a university education.

For me university opened my world, introducing me to new ideas, tastes but above all to enjoying the company of other bright young people on the same journey as me.  I am lucky to have kept a number of very good friends from that time and there is something which is special about the shared experience we have together which it has been difficult for later relationships to emulate.

In recent years there has been much discussion, in the context of the debate about tuition fees, about the value of university education.  It always seem a shame to me to see this debate cast in purely utilitarian terms.    Yes it is right that society should expect some return from its investment in university education but if this is missing the point if this is limited too narrowly to a focus on vocational qualifications.    I can’t think of too many days when I put to direct the use the details of late Roman history but at the same time the habits of thought, inquiry and expression which I learnt at University are fundamental to why I have had a successful career and been able, I hope, to make a meaningful contribution to society.

So I believe the opportunity, along with a range of other choices, should be there for all who feel they can benefit from it and as a society we should celebrate the contribution which our universities make to the development of a young people and to the wealth, knowledge and cultural life of our country.  Universities, like all human institutions are not perfect, but I despise the philistine tendency, which sadly surfaces from time to time in our national conversation, to devalue intellectual activity which cannot immediately be valued in pounds, shillings and pence.

That is not to say that the financial burden for paying for the privilege of going to university shouldn’t be bourn proportionately by those who benefit from it.  I have long been a supporter of the idea of a graduate tax and actually believe that is, in essence, after all the controversy of the tuition fee debate, is what we have ended up with.  However university education is funded though it is clear that there is much more to do to make sure it is an opportunity that is open to all, whatever their background.     My parents’ experience in a different generation makes this clear to me.

University while an exciting opportunity is still a time of vulnerability for many young people.  Student welfare has developed enormously since I was at university but there is much to do to help support those young people who develop problems, for instance with their mental health.

So as he starts his university career I wish my son and his contemporaries all the good fortune and excitement I had when I was a student.  I hope he will feel the same when, in turn, he perhaps takes my grandson or granddaughter to start their university career

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