The Value of University


The original Imperial College: now the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum

The original Imperial College: now the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum

What is the “value of a degree”? We frequently see articles in the media engaging in hand-wringing about the “value of a degree” or the “value of university”. Many such articles make questionable assumptions about the meaning of the word “value”. The real value of a degree, and of the university experience, to any individual, depends on many factors, including the skills, goals and personality of the individual.

There’s the frequently-unspoken question of whether the “value” of the qualification is purely financial, or else has less tangible value to the person possessing it. Do you just treat your entire future life as some kind of balance sheet, where you offset the cost of obtaining the degree against the extra earnings that you think it may bring you? What, also, of the value of the experience of obtaining the degree, and the skills learned during that process?

Finally, there’s the issue of the quality of the institution granting the so-called degree. These range from world-leading universities with established track records, to “Mickey Mouse” colleges that seem to be operating mostly for easy money rather than through any commitment to the furtherance of knowledge.

Each individual must evaluate his or her personal situation, but, as the first member of my family ever to have gone to university, I offer here my own experiences and reflections.

My Own Experience

Thunder over South Kensingtion, 1981. View over Imperial College and Knightsbridge Barracks

Thunder over South Kensington, 1981. View over Imperial College and Knightsbridge Barracks

In my case, I enjoyed learning for its own sake, and discovering more about how the universe works. (I realize that most of the population do not seem to share this view.)

Despite subsequent disappointments and unanticipated setbacks, I’m glad that I went to university and got the degree that I did. I would not have regretted it even if my degree had not led to better jobs.

Non-Academic Benefits

There are also many benefits to the university experience that are not directly related to courses of study, and those who haven’t had the experience often seem completely unaware of these aspects.

I had many non-academic experiences as a student that would simply never have been available to me had I not gone to university. For example, I became involved in the Student Television Club at Imperial College, which led to my meeting and interviewing many celebrities, such as Michael Palin, Sir Cliff Richard, Paul Eddington, Gordon Jackson, Sir David Attenborough, and so on. What chance would I ever have had to do any of that otherwise?

Now, in response to my comments, some people would point out that “It’s easy for you to say that”, because my degree was free to me, and I even got a grant for my living expenses. Although that was generally true for undergraduate students in Britain at that time, it wasn’t necessarily true for me when I decided to return to university after taking two years “out” in industry. There was no guarantee that I could obtain a grant for the year that the authorities considered “wasted”, although in the end I was persuasive. I do concede, though, that the threat of a long-term financial burden might have made me think again.

I realize that I was incredibly lucky to have obtained my degree free of any financial burden. Whenever I’m feeling how unfair life can be, I always try to remind myself of my good fortune in that regard!

I was also lucky to obtain a place in one of the world’s top ten universities. I must admit that the value of qualifications from low-caliber universities is more questionable.

Learning to Discover

The university academic experience also has benefits beyond what you actually learn while there. My university studies taught me how to do research and how to develop original ideas, which has led to my making many innovations and inventions. Some of the inventions have been patented, and I continue to strive to innovate today in the fields that interest me.

Summary & Recommendations

Queens Tower, Imperial College, in snow, 1981

Queens Tower, Imperial College, after a snow shower, 1981

Despite the financial concerns, my recommendation would be to try not to view obtaining a degree in purely mercenary terms. If you view the value of a degree and of university experience as being purely financial, then you’ll be missing out on many other tangible benefits.

In my case, one reason that I chose to go back to university after working in industry for a few years was because I realized that, the longer I waited, the more difficult it would become to return and obtain a degree. I decided that, if I went back and graduated, then, even if my qualification turned out to be less useful than I’d anticipated, the worst that would happen would be that I’d wasted a couple of years of my life. On the other hand, if I didn’t go back, I’d continue to be shut out of many jobs that I was quite capable of doing, and I’d never be able to get those years back.

After all, life is not a mechanical process where you press “Start” and then go through a mindless sequence of predictable operations, which inevitably will only culminate in your death. Surely, it’s just as important to enjoy each stage as much as you can, and it’s about appreciating the journey at least as much as the final destination.

Deconstructing the Future

The City of the Future (When I was Ten)

The City of the Future (As I envisaged when I was Ten)

Here’s a “throwback” to a drawing that I produced at the age of ten, to illustrate a story set in “the future”.

Last week, Mary and I went to see the documentary movie Deconstructing Sergeant Pepper, in which Scott Freiman analyzes the musical innovations that went into the creation of the Beatles’ 1967 album*. We both enjoyed the movie, because it doesn’t get bogged down in technical detail, but at the same time doesn’t shy away from technical issues when they’re relevant. The presenter even discussed the Automatic Track Doubling circuit that was used to create echo effects, although he didn’t go so far as to display a circuit diagram!

(* We saw the movie at the Rialto in Sebastopol, but it will be screened again in other theaters around the US, along with other documentaries in the same series.)

Of course, I was just a young boy of six or seven when the Beatles were creating that innovative music, so I didn’t really grasp what was going on in the world around me. In retrospect, I do recall a general mood of optimism and change during those years, but I’m not sure to what extent that was shared by the adults around me, or was simply an aspect of my youth. I’m fairly certain that any such optimistic Zeitgeist was not shared by my parents!

Seeing the “Sergeant Pepper” movie did, however, bring to mind recollections of my own youthful expectations about the future and my role in the world. In 1970, I produced the drawing above to illustrate a story that I was writing at school. My story was ambitiously set in the year 2461, but was inevitably a “product of its time”. The tower I drew was supposed to be a city, but it also happened to be a rocket. The style was clearly inspired by the claims of 1960s-era architects about future buildings, but my innovative design also incorporated the boosters from the first stage of the Saturn V spaceship!

Goldfinger or Glassfinger?

London Wall in the Rain, 1981

London Wall in the Rain, 1981

Respected architects of the post-war period, such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ernö Goldfinger claimed that twenty-first century cities would be “managed environments,” probably consisting of huge glass-clad skyscrapers. Many of these architects clearly saw the creation of such cities as being socially beneficial.

Goldfinger himself wrote in 1941:

Cities can become centres of civilisation where men and women can live happy lives. The technical means exist to satisfy human needs. The will to plan must be aroused. There is no obstacle but ignorance and wickedness.

Creativity & the Tyranny of Good Intentions

The fact that I was encouraged to spend time writing such a fantastic story at school seems surprising in retrospect. I do recall that, during my primary schooling, there was significant emphasis on “creativity”, in that we were encouraged or even required to write and draw every day.

If that policy was intended to turn all of us into creative adults, it seems to have been an utter failure in most cases! For me, though, it was generally enjoyable and probably beneficial, and I’m only disappointed that the emphasis of our education changed later to uncreative, rote preparation for exams.

The heart of this disconnect was, and still is, that there is a huge gulf between the kind of people that educators want to produce, and the kind of people that employers actually want schools to produce.

I’ve seen evidence that the emphasis on creativity in schools in those days was actually quite new, and stemmed from the “progressive” educational ideas that had been laid out in the Plowden Report, but the schools I attended were not notably progressive. The Church of England school that I was being forced to attend when I produced the story containing this illustration prided itself on being anything but progressive!

The book “Progressively Worse” by Robert Peal contains an interesting discussion of the history and consequences of progressive education in Britain.

Revelation in Aylesbury

The Bell Hotel, Aylesbury, with the Buckinghamshire County Offices beyond, in 1980

The Bell Hotel, Aylesbury, with the Buckinghamshire County Offices beyond, in 1980

There have been some occasions in my life when I’ve attempted something that, at the time, seemed to be a failure, but eventually it became apparent that I had gained some unanticipated new insight or skill. One such instance happened at a job interview in 1980, in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.

I described in a previous post how, having commenced my first full-time “permanent” job at Swifts of Scarborough, I soon came to feel that I was capable of something better (and also hopefully better-paying), and began to look around for more suitable employment.

One field that was recognized as being the “white heat of technology”* in those days was “Computing”, and I wondered whether my math skills would make me a good fit for that daunting new field. Incredible though it may seem now, I’d never actually used a computer (except for a digital calculator) until I went to university. Even though I was working as an Accounts Clerk at an engineering company, there wasn’t a single computer of any kind in the business. Swifts’ accounts department used nothing more sophisticated than electric adding machines.

(* Ironically, Harold Wilson made his “white heat” speech in, of all places, my home town—Scarborough!)

My first brush with computer programming was very disheartening. During the first year engineering course, we were required to write a single computer program. However, we received no instruction in how to do this; apparently we were expected to know already, or to teach ourselves! I found this very difficult and frustrating, and I didn’t seem to achieve good results. I concluded that I probably wasn’t “cut out” for computing, and shouldn’t attempt to pursue it further.

Later, after I’d left Warwick, I discovered that quite a few of my fellow students there had actually obtained A-levels in Computing before starting at university; a subject that wasn’t even on offer in Scarborough! Thus it wasn’t at all surprising that I hadn’t been able to compete well against such students.

Insurance Building on Gatehouse Road, Aylesbury, in 1980

Insurance Building on Gatehouse Road, Aylesbury, in 1980

One of the potential jobs for which I somehow noticed an advertisement was for a “Computer Data Entry Clerk” at an insurance company in Aylesbury. I was warned that my interview would include a “Computer Programming Aptitude” test.

When it came time to take the test, the interviewer explained that there was no time limit. Accuracy was more important than speed. I could take as long as I needed to finish, but typically completion took about 4 hours.

I found that I’d finished and checked my work after about 3 hours, so I went over and handed my paper to the interviewer. He asked me if I was sure that I’d finished everything and done as much as I could, and repeated that there was no time limit for the test. I confirmed that I had completed everything. He gave me a skeptical look and accepted the paper, then I walked out.

I heard nothing further until weeks later, when I received a letter from the company, informing me that they were not offering me the Data Entry Clerk job. The letter went on to explain that I had done so well on the test that I “clearly” had great computer programming aptitude, and that my skills would be wasted in so lowly a position! As had happened at other interviews, I received the advice that I should instead return to university and try to obtain a technical degree.

So I didn’t get the job, but I did get some extremely valuable feedback that bolstered my self-confidence and caused me to renew my interest in a field that I had been ready to abandon.

I eventually followed the advice that I’d been given at those interviews, although I chose Electronic Engineering rather than Computer Science. In retrospect, CS may have been a better fit for my unusual skill mix, but, at the time, I hadn’t forgotten the difficulty of trying to compete with other students who had A-levels in Computing, when I had no formal qualifications in that field at all.

Old and New. Aylesbury Canal Wharf, with the County Offices building beyond

Old and New, in 1980. Aylesbury Canal Wharf, with the County Offices building beyond

Scarborough Railway Station: A Historical Mystery Tour

Scarborough Central Railway Station in 1977

Scarborough Central Railway Station in 1977

During my teenage years, for my A-level Art study of architecture, I did some original research on the history of Scarborough [Central] Railway Station (shown above), which led to a surprising conclusion about the building’s original appearance.

My conclusions were questioned at the time, but were verified decades later by someone else’s chance discovery.

It was always a well-known fact that Scarborough’s main railway station was built in 1845 (quite early in the history of railways), at a location that was then outside the town limits. It’s also well-known that, in 1882, a central tower was added to the frontage. Surprisingly, and despite the efforts of various developers over the decades, the station building has survived to this day in essentially its 1882 form, as shown in my 1977 photograph at the top of this article.

During my researches at Scarborough Reference Library, I discovered a copy of a catalog for an exhibition called “Marble Halls”, which had apparently taken place at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 1973.

Marble Halls

An 1844-dated illustration in the Marble Halls catalog showed a plan of “Scarborough Station” that, at first glance, looked nothing like the existing structure. The image below is the copy of the catalog illustration that I created for my study.

Copy of Plan of Scarborough Station, 1844

Copy of Plan of Scarborough Station, 1844

I hadn’t expected to see the central tower, of course, but where are the three small pavilions in the building’s frontage? The plan also shows a colonnaded central entrance, of which there’s no trace in the existing building.

My initial impression was that this plan did not represent the station as built, but I was puzzled that the accompanying commentary did not mention any discrepancy between the plan and the structure as-built.

I wrote to some local experts on the subject, who provided me with the limited historical references that were available. None of this provided any clear details regarding alterations to the building, except for the addition of the tower. The general opinion seemed to be that the entire frontage of Scarborough Station had probably been rebuilt in 1882 (rather than just the tower), but there was no evidence to prove that claim. One expert pointed out that the architect’s illustration in “Marble Halls” may have been nothing more than an “architect’s impression”, and that there was no guarantee that the station as-constructed had ever resembled that plan.

Some Detective Work

If in fact the building’s frontage had been substantially altered in 1882, it struck me that perhaps I could find some evidence of that (although it seemed odd that nobody would have previously noticed anything).

I walked around the outside of the building, examining its architectural details. I looked particularly at the locations that would be the junctions between the 1845 structure and what were potentially later alterations. Eventually, at the East end of the joint between the easternmost pavilion and the main trainshed (on the far left in the heading photo), I found a mismatch in the details of the pediment, as shown in my sketch below.

Scarborough Station. Detail of Trainshed Pediment stonecarving

Scarborough Station. Detail of Trainshed Pediment stonework

The mismatched joint shown above would have occurred where the new pavilion was added to the main wall of the original building, if my suspicions about the station’s original appearance were correct.

Given the immense precision of the building’s stone carving, it seemed impossible that such a noticeable mismatch would have occurred (or be allowed to remain) during the original construction. It seemed much more likely that this mismatch occurred because of some miscalculation when new stone was carved later, the intention having been to match the details of the original building.

Conclusion & Confirmation

In my study, I presented my conclusion that the 1844 architectural plan did indeed show the original appearance of Scarborough station, but that the building had been subject to greater subsequent alteration in the 1880s than most people had suspected. Not only was the central tower added, but most of the original frontage had been removed, and replaced with the three small pavilions that still exist.

At the time, I had no evidence to support my assertion, except for the architectural plan and my own illustrations of the architectural details of the actual building. Thus, my conclusion remained unproven, and nothing more than an “interesting speculation”.

In 1995, long after the completion of my Art A-level, and by which time I’d moved away from Scarborough, first to London and then to California, one of my expert correspondents from 1977, J R Lidster, published his own book on Scarborough Railway Station. In that book, he included a drawing of the station frontage from a letterhead that had recently been discovered in the attic of a property in Scarborough.

Sure enough, the letterhead showed a building that closely matched that depicted in the 1844 plan in the book “Marble Halls”, thus finally verifying the conclusion of my investigation.

A Sense of History

At the age of thirteen, I was forced to select a restricted range of subjects at school for continued study, as preparation for taking “O-level” examinations. One of the subjects that I dropped was history, because my naïve belief at that time was that history was “already written down”, and thus there was nothing new to add. Even at that age, I knew that, whatever I was going to devote my life to, I wanted it to be something innovative.

The experience that I described above, where I was able to provide original insight into a historical problem, showed me that my earlier view of history had been wrong. The events under consideration were, after all, relatively recent history, dating back only about one century, and yet many details were unrecorded, and there were new contributions to be made. I was able to offer new information without even “getting my hands dirty”!

Postscript: More Marble Halls

This incident was my first encounter with the contents of the “Marble Halls” catalog. The book also contains illustrations of other Victorian buildings that featured in my later life. For example, there’s an illustration of the Imperial Institute in London, the buildings of which were subsequently incorporated into Imperial College, from where I would graduate.

The book also includes an image of Highclere Castle, in Hampshire, which was close to my home in Andover in later years. Highclere Castle is now world-famous as the fictitious Downton Abbey.

How Radio Times Reintroduced Me to Art

pysch_gambling2My previous post explained “How I Became a London Student and (Almost) Went Astray”. As I mentioned, moving to London and taking up studies there led me to many experiences that I had never anticipated.

Imperial College in London is just across Exhibition Road from the Victoria & Albert Museum. In 1981, when I moved to the Student Halls of Residence in South Kensington, the “V&A” had just added a new exhibition building, which they named the “Henry Cole Wing”. Ironically, this building had been the original location of Imperial College, when it was known as the “Normal School of Science”.

One of the first exhibitions to be held in the Henry Cole Wing featured (mostly) monochrome artwork produced for one of Britain’s best-known publications: Radio Times.

Here’s the cover of the exhibition guide:


I visited the exhibition several times, and was intrigued by the inkwork techniques of the artists, which were very apparent in the original works displayed. Even the “whiting out” of mistakes in the artwork was obvious!

I hadn’t done any serious artwork myself for a few years, but, looking at these works, I must have begun to feel that “maybe I could do this”. At the same time, I had volunteered to be the Publicity Officer of Imperial College’s H G Wells Society. I decided that perhaps I could produce some monochrome artwork for use as posters for the H G Wells Society.

The H G Wells Society presented lectures on a wide variety of subjects. One of the first on the schedule was to be titled “The Psychology of Gambling”. Thus, I set to work with ink and brush to produce what I hoped would be an eye-catching illustration.

The result was the image at the head of this post, and thus it came about that, even though I’d moved to London to study Electrical Engineering, I found myself once again using my artistic skills.

How I Became a London Student and (Almost) Went Astray

img0020rotatedGiven my education as an engineer, you may expect that I began reading the work of H G Wells because of his science fiction writing. It’s true that, as a child, I watched several movies that were derived from Wells’ science fiction, such as “War of the Worlds”, but I never actually read any of his books.

In fact, though, I was first motivated to read Wells’ work because of his social ideas. One of the first titles I read was “In the Days of the Comet“, which is now largely forgotten, but, when published, was regarded as outrageous, and was even denounced as pornographic!

Not all of Wells’ works fall into the genre of science fiction; some are simply social novels, such as “Ann Veronica” (also now forgotten, but controversial when first published, because it advanced the cause of women’s rights). Many include autobiographical details, such as “Tono Bungay“, which he published in 1909.

A few years after reading “Tono Bungay”, I moved to London to begin my undergraduate studies in Electrical Engineering. It was only then that I picked up the book again, and realized the ominous title of the first chapter:


I recalled that Wells had indeed been a student at London’s “Normal School of Science” himself, almost a hundred years before I began studying at the same university, now renamed as Imperial College. Wells’ own studies didn’t work out as planned; he did indeed “go astray” and failed his degree. Nonetheless, his experience working on the college’s student newspaper led to his successful writing career, so the outcome was actually successful.

For my part, although I found London very distracting, and it would have been easy to have “gone astray”, I managed to get through and obtain an Honours degree. In addition, I gained vital experience in several other fields that proved useful professionally, but which I’d never anticipated, such as illustration and television.

The college building in which H G Wells studied still exists, across the road from the current Imperial College. It is now known as the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum, as shown below in my 1996 photograph.

The original Imperial College: now the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum

The original Imperial College: now the Henry Cole Wing of the Victoria & Albert Museum