I've signed up to study the OU's MA in History starting in September. My reasons for this are twofold: it's good to be a student every now and then to remember what it's like to be a 'real' student; and I have this notion that part of what I do on this blog and in my digital scholarship book is to act like a contempary historian. I am trying to document, predict, analyse, and generally make-it-up-as-I-go-along this particular period of change for scholarly practice, because I feel that it's a significant one. But I don't have the real theoretical or methodological underpinning from a historical perspective to do this.
I'm lucky, I get my fees paid as an employee of the University (rather like the mythical island where everyone makes a living taking in their neighbour's washing, maybe the OU can just populate its courses with its own staff). But completing the fee waiver form made me think about the (purely financial) cost of studying, and how it compared. Now, I believe education should be free, it's a general benefit to society to have people studying, so this isn't a political post about education funding, instead just looking at how it compares with other family spends.
As a leisure activity it is at the higher end, but doesn't come out too bad. My course is £3120 for the first part (which lasts a whopping 16 months), and then £1560 for the second which lasts 9 months. So that's a good couple of years of high quality activity (it actually comes to 2.5 with a small break in between and some pre-course work).
Here are some other leisure costs for comparison over the same period:
- Full season ticket at Spurs: about £4000 (would be 2.5 seasons)
- Average family holiday: £7,800 (2 family holidays)
- Gardening: £700
So it's definitely a luxury 'product' but not excessively so. It doesn't compete then on price as a luxury activity. What does it compete on? I'd suggest it has the following advantages:
- Longevity – a post or undergrad degree will teach you techniques and you'll gain knowledge that will stay with you forever. On the first day of my Psychology degree back in 1986 they told us "long after you've forgotten all the stuff we teach you, you'll remember how to be a scientist". And they were right. You may retain memories of a good holiday or football season, but the longevity of good education is hard to beat.
- Self-worth – I think an adventure holiday or growing a beautiful garden provide this too, but there is something about the objective value of a degree or masters qualification. You have achieved something that is broadly recognised and even for a Prof, that has a value to one's sense of self-worth. The sense of having been challenged and achieved something (much like running) gives a sense of purpose that is difficult to find elsewhere, outside of physical, sporting challenges.
- Identity – being a football fan can add a lot to a sense of identity and people often label themselves in such terms, but so does acquiring a degree. I don't know if I'll label myself a historian afterwards, but it will definitely be a component.
- Job prospects – this depends on the qualification, and increasingly is less significant than it used to be when everyone has a degree. It probably won't count much in my case, but who knows, it could lead to interesting career directions, research projects, etc. But certainly this is something holidays and footie tickets can't claim.
- Enjoyment – I can't say how much it compares with a good family holiday or a great footie season, or a carefully cultivated garden. All of these provide enjoyment, but that is their principle sales pitch. I feel the joy you find in becoming part of an academic community, of learning interesting stuff for its own sake is something we don't make enough of in education.
In making this comparison though I think I've highlighted the problem in making education a market commodity. If you look at that list above of the virtues education offers, aside from job prospects, it is almost impossible to value them in monetary terms. How much is improved self worth in cash terms? To ask the question is to see it as ridiculous.