Opinion with Jane Wenham-Jones: Should we be learning the job by degrees?

All Jane wants is a plumber

I still dream about my A-levels. This nightmare is always the same. It is May or June and I realise exams must be imminent. But unfortunately, I haven’t been to school for weeks, let alone opened a book. (A fair approximation of the situation I was in fact in, 40 years ago). I wake up in a lather of relief that I need never sit another paper again. If the coronavirus had struck when I was in the sixth form, I’d have thought all my Christmases had come at once.

My heart goes out to students affected by the results debacle – and to their anxious parents too. My son was pretty laid back when sitting his A-levels – I felt as sick as a parrot. There is something wrong with a system that causes so much stress and anxiety. Where so much depends on grades right now, that will never matter again.  No-one will care what you got an A or a B in, once you have your degree. They may not care much about your degree either.

I know young people who diligently got their 2:1s, who are now working variously as estate agents, in pizza parlours and moving railway sleepers about. Did they really need fifty grand’s worth of student debt to do that?

It seems to me that these days, unless you study medicine or science, the contents of fewer and fewer degrees are actually carried into one’s working life.

So, who dreamt up the necessity for three years’ study for career paths that used to involve starting out by making the tea and then working your way up?

I have never run a hotel, for example, but if I shadowed the manager for six weeks, I know I could. And so could you. Without a degree in ‘Hotel Management’. Similarly, I’ve organised a great number of Corporate Golf Days, conferences and charity bashes in my time. Without even a sniff at the syllabus of  ‘Event Planning’. Since when did we need “qualifications” for jobs that only require reasonable intelligence and a dollop of common sense?  While more and more degrees are introduced that equip you to do nothing much.

You can come out with letters after your name in ‘Pop Culture” these days.  Or ‘Cake Technology Management’. Author and cat groomer Anita Kelsey has a first-class honours degree in ‘Feline Behaviour and Psychology’. This could at least be useful if I want to get to the bottom of why I am frequently woken by heart-rending wails suggesting near-starvation at 4am, just so that I can stumble downstairs to view an untouched bowl of cat biscuits and the rear end of a cat disappearing. Or why a suitable resting place for a chewed mouse head is deemed to be inside one of our trainers. (I’ve pre-ordered her book Let’s Talk About Cats. It’s out in November.)

Practical education is one thing. A degree in ‘Brewing and Distilling’ could lead to a gainful job (and provide a useful service) but a BA in ‘David Beckham’ or ‘Pizza Hut’ Studies’? These are both real courses. What happened to the promises of apprenticeships and real skills that society needs? You can lose your life waiting for a decent electrician to have a spare half-day and I challenge you to find a proper carpenter who’s under 65.  The British Meat Processors Association has already warned the Government about a shortage of butchers…

Ah, but it’s the leaving home, I hear you cry. The gaining of independence, the chance to stretch the mind and horizons, to build new friendships and find one’s inner strengths. Leaving aside the view that you can do this a lot more cheaply by digging wells in Africa or working in a shelter for the homeless, I am indeed all for kids having the university experience and building up their immune systems in shared student kitchens. But really, couldn’t they do it just for six months or so – and then train to be a plumber?



  1. I profoundly disagree with what JWJ has to say on this subject.I know nowadays that everyman/ woman has a point of view and they never fail to let us, the unenlightened, have the benefit of their detailed knowledge on almost anything,but this time she has gone too far.
    Knowledge any knowledge, learnt in a disciplined way, so that thoughts and actions can be set out cogently, is a good thing.
    Part of the reason why Thanet struggles to deliver enough employment is the lack of skills and educational attainment.There are too many with no qualifications, too many NEATS (Not in Employment,Education or Training) and not enough priority for lifetime learning.
    The reason why the German economy is so strong, is because it trains its workforce, invests in new tech, and has boring technocrats to running things.
    We prefer a different way, which allows upbringing and wealth, to select who does well and who does not.Which is the better option, you choose?
    I agree that the debt that young people take on to fund their education hampers their life choices, but that is because of our poor societal constructs, not their fault. As far as i am concerned as many should go to Uni as can be accomodated, because they will benefit.Stop being so sniffy about degrees you deign to be unworthy. If all our universities turn out nothing but middle class doctors and scientists, or we let the wealthy run (I use that term advisedly) parliament with their PPE’s from Oxbridge we will be in a fine old state and that’s just what we are in.

    • George Nokes. What a pompous and condescending opening paragraph.
      Why has Jane Wenham- Jones ‘gone too far’? By the way do you have an ology?

        • We are all lifetime learners and are learning and maybe revising our outlook on life everyday whether one has an ology or not Mr Nokes. I certainly can spot sanctimonious individuals a mile off or should we say kilometer.

  2. This from a woman who thought that getting to Manchester from Thanet by flying via Manston and Scipol rather than the train was a good thing? (IoTN passim)
    Maybe she should take a short course in Environmental Studies.

  3. Recent changes in careers services and the integration of careers information within lesson plans has accepted the simple fact that the one career path does not fit everyone.

    George Nokes comments that everyone will benefit from a University pathway is a ludicrous misconception. Years ago when I attended Canterbury College I studied electronics and communications to degree level (BTEC/HND). All the trades were present. Building & Construction. Engineering & Mining, catering. The list was a long one.

    A prosperous country cannot be sustained on Maggie Thatchers idea of a bunch of people shuffling bits of paper around in The City whilst we import everything else. Other countries invested in training and an infrastructure where they (cover your ears dirty word in this country coming up) encouraged manufacturing.

    Whilst our best and brightest should be supported and encouraged on to greater achievements, we need to equally accept that adequate resources should be in place for others to attain their goals through more suitable paths such as apprenticships.

  4. I have never run a hotel, for example, but if I shadowed the manager for six weeks, I know I could. And so could you.

    What an unbelievable statement. To think you can learn how to run a hotel in just six weeks of watching the manager is a disgrace to managers everywhere l. So in 6 weeks you are going to know how to do risk assessment, cossh assessment, safety data sheets, bookings, ordering, HR, hygiene, stock taking, doing VAT, fire checks, and lots more that going into being a manager.

  5. COSHH assessment course online 90 minutes.

    Risk Assessment course online ten quid.

    Authorship Course half day £5 bring your own clipboard and hard hat. Tea provided.

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