As the university semester begins and students head back to classes for another year, it is worth examining the troubling history and reality of Western higher education.


It is widely acknowledged that without a university education the ability to earn an income can be limited. While trades, vocational institutions and technical colleges do present lucrative opportunities, achieving a six-figure income is more difficult for those who choose not to pursue university study. A bachelor’s degree is even becoming an insufficient prerequisite in some cases, with employers demanding, whether overtly or covertly, post-graduate qualifications.

But has it always been necessary to spend three to ten years at university to achieve a worthwhile income?


Throughout much of human history, entry to most professions has been achieved via apprenticeship. Aspiring lawyers and doctors spent years working in law offices or hospitals shadowing actual lawyers and doctors – and providing actual value – instead of years in a centralised institution.

Government should not only get out of the business of universities, but also regulating merit

Even today in California, Vermont, Virginia and Washington, aspiring lawyers can practice law after several years of apprenticeship study. In Maine, New York and Wyoming practice is permitted with a combination of apprenticeship study and only one or two years of law school.

In a similar vein, in many parts of the world it is possible to attain a PhD by publishing a collection of material that shows noteworthy advancement in the field of study; formalised post-graduate study with a dissertation is not required.

While many conservatives and libertarians criticise the modern university landscape for providing useless degrees and failing to adequately prepare students for the modern workplace, this has never been their role. Universities were never supposed to be the employee-creation factories that people now expect them to be. Liberal arts education (septem artes liberales) has been the traditional academic course in Western higher education for centuries.

It is only in very modern times that we have come to see university as a necessary piece of the education puzzle: a place where most late teenagers and young adults are expected to go after completing their state-mandated education. Throughout most of history, university was a place exclusively reserved for the children of elite, often noble, families; a place where rich parents sent their children to become more worldly and provide more interesting conversation at dinner parties.


For 90% of their history, universities were an elite luxury. From its ancient origins, it was a place to satiate those with a scholarly desire for understanding. And while there certainly is utility in such a pursuit, it was only for those not encumbered by the toils of labour.

It is widely acknowledged that without a university education the ability to earn an income can be limited. 

The reflection of this in modern universities is obvious: lush, green campuses stretch out across hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of prime real estate. And while scholars are no longer expected to be rich nobles, students still rely on the luxury of other people’s labour. In fact, the universities of old had more credibility because at least the cost was borne by a rich family rather than the ordinary taxpayer.

Now, non-university-educated taxpayers not only pay for the cost of another person’s education, they pay them a modest stipend while they study. More than that, they pay for the privilege of further enhancing this bloated institution.


While modern universities still provide value and certainly have a place within the education-workforce dynamic, that place is greatly overstated. I would have no problem being operated on by a surgeon who had no formal qualifications but had spent many years being trained in the real world by actual doctors – in fact, I would choose this surgeon over one a modern university had spat out.

The fact that governments have partnered with this obscure government-but-not-government institution and then insisted it is the only institution that can deem someone worthy of high-paying work is the kind of fascism that should have university students everywhere in uproar.
Government should not only get out of the business of universities, but also regulating merit. The market is actually incredibly good at optimising for merit. Similarly, employers need to stop overvaluing the merits of university education, particularly post-graduate education, and realise that universities have never been concerned about their hiring preferences.

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