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Prof Eddie Bromhead: Is a degree in Irish women’s studies the most worthless on the planet?

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I think I must have been an undergraduate when I first saw the graffiti next to a toilet roll holder: ‘Sociology degrees: please take one’, and not much later learnt that the answer to what do you say to a sociology graduate when you meet him was “I’ll go large on that”. Oh how we laughed, we students of engineering and science, knowing with the confidence of youth that we were studying something useful, and they were studying (if that is the right word) some Marxist twaddle, which mainly consisted of sit-ins in corridors and going off to London to be in one of Jack Straw’s demos.

A half-century later, and with virtually every Tomasina, Dick and Harriett getting some sort of a degree and paying perhaps upwards of £40,000 for the privilege, there is a certain sort of pressure to study something that increases one’s chances of making a decent living.

If you can afford it, there is a case for studying something out of sheer interest. Indeed, some parts of human knowledge do not have immediate industrial application and even the most utilitarian thinker would surely consider society the poorer for the lack of any practitioners in what you might call the liberal arts. Of course, if they work for the BBC, and get grossly overpaid for spouting a load of left-wing bile on a regular basis, they may, of course, consider their university course of great value.

My particular bête noire was a course I once saw advertised by a poster: “Irish women’s studies”. I never discovered if this was studies for Irish women, or studies of Irish women, but it did seem an eclectic choice of discipline. It also got me thinking about the value to society of such a qualification, and indeed many others, and what the annual need for Masters graduates with this particular knowledge base might be. Do not let me stop there, because of course, one might ask how many graduates in aeronautical engineering can we reasonably employ? Or vulcanologists?

For the uninformed, some subjects in higher education may seem weird beyond belief, and there is nowhere better than Private Eye’s ‘Pseud’s Corner’ to see these things ridiculed. There used to be (may still be for all I know) an HND in ‘Golf Studies’, where one of the entry qualifications was a decent handicap. It came in for a right Private Eye pasting.

Now, in the UK there are about 3,000 golf courses, and there are more than ten times as many worldwide, and each one needs to be managed. The ideal manager is someone who knows and loves the game, understands business and the running of shops, bars and restaurants, keeps the course in good condition, and if a rich member turns up on their own, can rely on the resident professional to partner them for a round. If all those skills are combined in the same person, it seems to me like a great job and a sensible career to follow. Not for me, as I subscribe to Mark Twain’s view of the sport, but there are plenty of people who like it enough to spend vast amounts of money on it.

In a way, I was lucky to have studied civil engineering, where even in Britain the annual demand is huge, and not just for those with the highest degree classification, because in some branches of civil engineering the willingness to stand out in the rain wearing uncomfortable high visibility clothing and a hard-hat along with all the workers is a more valuable attribute than an ability to manipulate Laplace Transforms. (So is financial astuteness, if one works for a contractor, and basic diligence when checking something is in the right place, or built from the right stuff).

So let us suppose that, as a society, we worked out roughly what the annual consumption of graduates in a particular field might be. In a centrally planned economy, that will be the number we might permit to start courses in that field. More sensibly, we might make allowance for how many might drop by the wayside during their studies or nevertheless finding that it was not really what they wanted to do and would transfer their skills (for example how an aeronautical engineer might end up designing cars), plus in many fields one would need to produce ‘spares’ to cope with those who were not good enough.

Then, of course, we might decide that a finite number of universities with target course numbers (‘cohort sizes’ in Edu-speak) meant that the numbers needed to be rounded up, and we might want to produce an oversupply as a contribution to helping less-developed nations – although I am not sure how many countries are crying out for experts in Irish women’s studies. So we might come to the conclusion that we needed perhaps 2X starts, or some other multiple, based on more than my gut feeling.

If I was in charge of such things, I might then make some sort of a competition to encourage better qualified students, for example, if the number we came out with as needing was X, then perhaps we might offer fees discounts, with the best qualified half-X being fee-free, the next half-X paying half of the fee, and only after that, students paying for their chance. It is like the early bird discount, and it is a financial incentive to work harder at school.

The present system has its defects, and no doubt any other system, including my suggestion, which I am sure everybody realises is slightly tongue in cheek, would throw up injustices and create an industry in gaming the system.

I suppose that Britain could get by with an annual production of Masters graduates in Irish women’s studies that did not reach double figures, or perhaps more if The Troubles restarted and one wanted to know more about Irish women’s interests and habits.

There are of course, other ways of making your degree worthless, and one of them is to cheat. In part 2, to follow shortly, I think I will reveal some secrets of cheating.

(Image: David Morris)

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Prof Eddie Bromhead
Eddie Bromhead is a former Professor of Geotechnical Engineering at Kingston University. Since retiring, he has continued to take part in professional and academic research activities, in the UK and abroad.

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