For centuries, people with university degrees enjoyed utmost respect in society. University education was of paramount importance to achieving a successful career and gaining prestige. While not being a strict prerequisite, having a university degree opened a lot of doors for many in the past. Certainly, for a long time access to university education was granted only for a people of a specific profile and was, therefore, often selection mechanism to grant the social reproduction of specific elites. Nonetheless, universities shaped the academic and economic landscape for a long time. More recently, however, there is an increased number of voices that claim that university education is obsolete. Most famously, leaders of powerful corporations like Tesla, Microsoft or Google reject the idea of needing a degree to pursue a successful career. Supported are these statements by an army of celebrities, business people and lecturers who proliferate the idea that earning money is not tied to a degree. While in most countries graduates still earn more than people with only a secondary education, the examples of successful people, who did not obtain tertiary education, seem to grow. Considering the high cost (time, money and effort) of university education in many countries, the question, whether a degree is really a useful investment, becomes more and more pressing. In any case, the answer to that question is: Yes. And here is why.
Since the globalisation accelerated in the 1990’s with the emergence of the internet, a whole new era of economic conduct began. With shorter than ever channels of communication, altered consumption behaviour, increased range for voicing ideas and virtually global market reach, the possibilities to earn money increased significantly. Therefore, it is just natural that many people with great ideas and entrepreneurial spirit managed to make a living out of business models that were not existent somewhat 20 years ago. Many of those people did not utilise more than a computer and an internet connection – either directly to build businesses or to reach to new sources of funding. The possibilities are sheer limitless. Further, many informational resources are available to the broad public, whereas universities held a monopoly on such information in the past. Making money was never less decentralised.
However, the fundamental question that arises is whether the goal is really to earn money. If that would be the case, everybody would start a business and sell something. Certainly, there are many products and services that are essential to the functioning and the advancement of society, many products and services are also obsolete or even harmful to this advancement. As this societal progress is achieved by the (re-)production of knowledge, profit-oriented business seldom adds to this progress; for example, a new fashion business does not add to the production of knowledge, nor is it essential to the functioning of society, but it generates profits. In such a scenario, innovations are merely driven by the desire for economic profit, which would categorically exclude all innovations and findings that cannot directly be monetised.
Departure from the roots
Universities, in general, counteract this premise, because they are mostly exploratory in their attempt to search for innovations and solve puzzling questions. Hence, we would expect universities to be an attractive place to seek for individual fulfilment and self-realisation. Unfortunately, this is less and less the case, because the universities also adapted to the changing economic world. Universities advertise with their employability ratings and offer increasingly business-oriented degrees – natural and social sciences become less attractive, due to their little economic return in the free market. Often, it is forgotten that administrative innovations, findings in natural sciences, technical inventions and discoveries of historians are the true drivers of societal progress and not the work of marketing departments of multi-national corporations. However, universities also altered their programmes to adapt to the needs of the market – and to stay profitable themselves. Hence, pursuing a degree in social studies and other sidelined disciplines is decreasingly feasible.
a degree? why?
A stated above, if the goal is to make money, then a degree is not a prerequisite, but there are nevertheless strong arguments in favour of it. First, knowing the craft and all its facets is a huge competitive advantage. Even if an economic degree is pursued, knowing how the field evolved, what other scholars have found out and being familiar with the connections between the different sub-branches will not only add to the technical knowledge, but also facilitate developing a more balanced and comprehensive way of thinking about virtually any topic. The same holds true for professions that are mainly based on skill and talent, such as painters or singers. In any case, the university education will broaden the perspective on the craft, unveil technical details and deliver insights into the history of the craft. A person, who is pursuing any kind of passion will find a suitable degree at some university and obtaining that degree will help to develop a more well-rounded profile as a professional of that craft. It does mean that this will increase future income, but holding a high standard towards oneself will normative add to character development. In other words, an unknown singer who knows a lot about the profession, its history and its technicalities is much more honourable than a successful and rich singer who does not know all these things and just performs.
The true value
Finally, the true value in university education is something that can be derived from all of the above. There are many things that we want to know about our planet, our species or the universe – many of which that cannot be monetised. Archeology, for example, is a dying field, because it is not very lenient towards generating profits. However, archeology is one of the corner stones of our advancement as a species, since it allows us to study past civilisations. This knowledge is picked up by many other disciplines, such as literature, political science or also biology. Scholars from such disciplines are seldom in the spotlight of the media, but they are the true motors of progress. In order to become a biologist, social scientist or archeologist, it is necessary to spend years on studying the works of great minds in the respective fields. It is necessary to obtain training in the application of proper methods. It is necessary to be around like-minded people who put great efforts in the furthering of their scientific field. Our world might be rationalised and money-oriented, but let us not forget that this thinking will create a status quo at best. Regardless of what your passion is, there will be a group of like-minded people at some university institute in the world that work on that specific thing. Finding this institute, becoming part of it and being awarded with a diploma for it is in any case a great investment – even if the return on it is not monetary.