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RACHEL RICKARD STRAUS: We teach toddlers about dinosaurs, but tell teenagers to measure their education as a return on investment - learning is about so much more than earning

I love the fact that we teach young children about giraffes, dinosaurs and planets.

None of these are essential bits of information for a new person in the world. They re unlikely to encounter a giraffe, being able to identify a Tyrannosaurus Rex is no longer a key survival skill and really what those things are that sparkle in the sky is by-the-by on a day to day basis.

And yet small people often learn about them far earlier than more practical bits of knowledge. I think this says something brilliant about us and our values.

The good stuff: Children are often taught about giraffes and some of the most amazing things in the world before more useful information gets a look in

The good stuff: Children are often taught about giraffes and some of the most amazing things in the world before more useful information gets a look in

To me, the decision to share some of the most spectacular stuff first is like joyfully saying: Welcome! Check out all these mindboggling, incomprehensively wonderful things this world contains. Did we mention the giraffes?!

Hidden in this seemingly useless information is also some pretty important stuff. The existence of giraffes tells us that not everywhere is like the place in which we live, dinosaurs hint that the world is old and existed long before us and will long after, and space well that we are very, very small.

I can t help thinking about this as I read the endless debates around university education that centre around graphs, extended calculations and notions of productivity and economic growth.

There are of course economic arguments to be made when considering the value of a degree – to an individual and the society in which they live.

And of course anyone who is likely to find themselves in 56,000 of debt after taking one – and the taxpayers who subsidise courses – will want to consider them.

But it's too easy to lose sight of the fact that degrees are not just about boosting earnings, or the economy or UK productivity.

The debate cannot be reduced to those terms.

This may seem obvious, but Theresa May's former joint chief of staff Nick Timothy is certainly not the first to make comments, as he did this week, such as 'certain degree subjects offer no return on investment' or that 'those who choose the wrong institutions and courses will see little benefit' – without a nod to the notion that there is more to education than earning power.

I think this is for the same reason as teaching small children about big animals, space and dinosaurs is a great idea. It teaches you things well beyond the content of the course or discipline.

I may not directly use what I learned about Keats, Joyce and Chaucer during my three years on a day to day basis, but I know it has permeated through so much of what I do: forming an argument, developing empathy, knowing how to delve into something to really understand it.

The same will be true of science graduates; not all will end up using their knowledge of mechanics, the biology of particular species or black holes in their careers, but they will use the skills, the ability to learn and hopefully the sense of wonder that they have developed.

There are also the countless other experiences beyond a course. For me it was hours spent working on the student newspaper, but I can think of so many friends for whom a guest speaker, a club that they joined, a book they read, that helped determine their career path as much as the degree they pursued. Of course this happens off campuses as well, but they do tend to be places where interested minds can meet and there is time and opportunity to discover new ideas.

There is also magic and value – in finding an interest, learning about it further, being taught about it by people who share that interest, that cannot be underestimated, but that is hard to graph and calculate.

We also need to think much more long term about how and what we learn.

Lifelong learning: Children are often taught about dinosaurs at a young age, even though they are unlikely to encounter one

Lifelong learning: Children are often taught about dinosaurs at a young age, even though they are unlikely to encounter one

Undergraduates today are likely to be working for a good half century. Over that time, there s no knowing how the world will change and what skills will be needed.

Some less valued skills may become more lucrative. For example, creative courses have for some time produced some of the lowest returns . But many believe that as robots or automation become increasingly dominant, the irreplaceable skills that people will need most will be creativity.

The value of others may diminish at times.

The other day I had an Uber driver who until a couple years ago was an oil engineer. He said his job and that of most of his colleagues disappeared when the oil price fell.

For many years, the time and money he d put into studying to become a highly-skilled engineer paid off it was pretty lucrative.

It all changed in a period of months, and he doesn t believe those jobs are coming back.

This will happen again and again over the next 50 years.

We need a workforce that is adaptable, with a love of learning which is perhaps most easily learned studying something you find interesting, whether academic or vocational.

And while of course there are economic arguments to be made around the value of higher education, there is so much that this does not cover. Just think of the giraffes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR celebrityrave

Journalist, writer and broadcaster, based in London and Paris, her latest book is Touché: A French Woman's Take on the English. Read more articles from Agnes.

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