Is higher education a waste of time?

Suli Breaks
Suli Breaks

It is rare that a spoken word video is viewed by 10,000 people; rarer still when viewed by 100,000.

It is therefore surprising to find a video on the subject of higher education that has amassed two million views in four months – a viral sensation that many pop stars would be happy with.

The video  called Why I Hate School but Love Education, by Suli Breaks, makes the provocative suggestion that much of what goes on in university education is a waste of time, and more valuable learning might be gained informally.

Those of us who have been to university know there is some truth in this. There can barely be an undergraduate who has not sat in a lecture theatre wondering: why am I here? Or, perhaps: what have I done to deserve this?

It is also true that many people leave university with the rather depressing attitude that they are done with education, as if the learning part of their life is over.

So, I am sympathetic with the overall line of argument. But the way in which Suli delivers his message is so skewed and misleading, that instead of agreeing with him I found myself alarmed.

He begins by reminding us that society suggests higher education might well be a good thing, and that your family may agree with that sentiment.

He then asks us to look at the statistics. Here the trouble starts. Instead of quoting statistics, he provides examples of the net wealth of seven entrepreneurs, including Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson.

The connection is that these people did not complete higher education. The point being that they didn’t bother wasting their time with such trivialities as gaining a degree, and got on with becoming hugely successful, and fabulously wealthy, instead.

At least one of these people would be deeply offended with their life story being misused in this way. Oprah Winfrey initially left college just one credit short, because she had secured a job. As a woman who grew up in extreme poverty that was understandable, and the fact that she later graduated shows the value she placed on her own higher education. That she has since built an academy for underprivileged girls in South Africa underlines her belief in the power of higher education.

Another of his statistics, Mark Zuckerberg, was at Harvard when he came up with the idea for Facebook. He trialed his business model there, using his fellow students as guinea pigs. It is unlikely that Facebook would exist in the way that it does if Zuckerberg had not gone to an elite university.

However, the deeper problem here is that these people are outliers, who bear little or no relation to what most people gain from going to university.

Then came the part which I found not just wrong, but odious. Suli says:

Some of you will protest,
money is only the medium by which one measures worldly success
and some of you will even have the nerve to say:
I don’t do it for the money.
So what are you studying for?
To work for a charity?

This I found offensive because he suggests university is only about earning lots of money. About the destination, not the journey. Should a person, when beginning an English Literature degree, really be thinking about the job at the end, not the deeper understanding of the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare? This ‘money over love’ argument is deeply distasteful to myself, and also, I suspect, to the majority of our fellow spoken word artists.

His talking derisively about working for a charity reveals a lack of awareness of what that type of work can mean. For myself, over the past four years, it has meant working for a charity that I care about, and doing a job that gave me personal satisfaction way beyond the pay packet.

All that I have outlined would be clear to most people who watch the video. So, why, you might ask, has it gained so many views?

It is because he provides a seductive message that higher education is not the key to success. That it is boring. That it encourages limited thinking. That it won’t get you that dream job.

This can be partially true. At a time when university education is relatively expensive in the UK (although not compared with the US) and graduate jobs are hard to find, some young people might like a video which encourages them to at least question it, or, judging by the comments on YouTube, dismiss it. What he makes no mention of are the positive benefits of university: the opportunity to study a subject you might be fascinated by, to develop your critical thinking, while also meeting people from different backgrounds and having the time to develop your extracurricular interests.

It is potentially inspiring to say that lacking a university education is no barrier to greatness.

The more prosaic truth is that you are more likely to get a satisfying, well paid job with a degree than without one. That is the argument the UK government gave when introducing tuition fees.

Social mobility in the UK is very low in comparison to other rich countries There are many reasons for this. One of them is that for middle-class children going to university is a fact of life. For many working-class children university remains an unlikely dream, or perhaps not even that.

I can understand why Suli Breaks became disillusioned at university. He may have chosen the wrong degree for him and was not inspired by it. He may have had an idealistic view of university life which was not fulfilled. He may have found that the people around him were no more intelligent than those from home. But if he were, in 10 years’ time, compare which people were doing better – those who went to university and those who did not – he might produce a video which encourages people from BME and working-class backgrounds to take the life-changing opportunity that is university education. It wouldn’t be such an easy message to get across, but it would be a lot more useful.

One thought on “Is higher education a waste of time?

  1. Suli Breaks is both innumerate and deluded and if he had any concept of mean salary and standard deviation he’d know how weak his ‘argument’ is. However he is probably a perfectly pleasant person and kind to his mum and is in tune with society in general who also have contempt for evidence based generalisations.

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