Degreegious?

About five years ago, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. This was about the time that I, and everyone else in my year, had to begin thinking about our futures in a serious way. Most people were set on going to university, and I was the same, I didn’t question it. I was sick of school, but I was totally ready to get out of the house, and out of my home city, and to be paid for it as well!

Growing up I’d never really had any clear ambitions, only vague aspirations of being an architect or a rugby player, or something else or other. During my first year of sixth form I’d spoken to a friend at the gym who’d said that if he could go back he would have studied medicine, regaling me with a story of the quality of life one of his old school friends who had become a doctor was enjoying, how he could afford to go out and eat at high-end restaurants at his whim and was currently living in a luxury apartment in London. Eating out? I loved food! Fancy apartment? I loved aesthetically pleasing things! I was onboard before he could finish his next sentence. This dream turned out to be just that, however, a short-lived flight of imaginative fancy, when I realised that most applicants to medicine needed at least three As at A-level, and that I was on track for, how shall I say…? Not that. Thus ended my pre-embryonic career as a doctor, it was over as quickly as it had started. Quicker, in fact! I was left to continue my search for meaning in this harsh and unforgiving realm that we call life.

Because at the time I had been studying triple science at A-level, and seeing as I wasn’t likely to get a place studying medicine at any self-respecting (or GMC-accredited) institution, I decided upon the next best thing: biochemistry! So that was it. I booked the open days at various universities and arranged to attend their respective biochemistry subject talks to see what this whole malarky was about. As an insurance policy, however, I also decided to throw in a wildcard subject to hedge my bets and keep things interesting, which ended up being politics. I was at the point in my life where I’d started becoming political and having “opinions”. I’d written my summative essay for the Welsh Baccalaureate on the welfare state of Denmark, the home country of my mother, and I was determined to change the world. If not biochemistry, then politics seemed like the next best option to allow me to impose my visions for global regime change.

The open days came around and I was eagerly walking around university campuses and buildings, mother (/chauffeur) in tow, taking notes, asking questions (/kicking ass, taking names (not really)), imagining my future for the next three years. The anticipation of being a strong, independent student who didn’t need no government loan or grant (although I did, I needed it very much) was almost too much to handle! Surprisingly, however, when it came to the subject talks, at each university without fail I had been bored to the point of somnolence (that can be your word of the day) in the biochemistry lectures. Amazingly, these lecturers on the cutting-edge of their fields had managed to make curing cancer uninteresting, and, as I found out afterwards, unintentionally! Gradually, studying politics began to look like an increasingly compelling option. In these talks, the academics were talking about The Big Issues, about how WE could change the world, make it a better place, and bring balance to the Force (that last part might be reserved for Jedi Knights, which I also wanted to be growing up, and in many ways still do). THEY were speaking my language.

So, when it finally came to deciding what I was going to do for the next three years, I went with my gut, which sounded like it was saying “politics”, although that may have been the curry that I had the night before. Either way, I wanted to study politics! So I ended up applying for five politics degrees at Sheffield, Southampton, Bath, Surrey, and UEA (the University of East Anglia, not the United Arab Emirates). I was actually discouraged from applying to a number of these institutions by my head of sixth-form, as I wasn’t on track to achieve the entry requirements for them, and he believed that I would likely not get offers from them. Well I sure showed him! I managed to receive conditional offers from every one of them (although I ended up not meeting the requirements for any of them on results day, but was still accepted by Southampton despite this with a B and two Cs, which, for all you international readers, if converted using the International Qualification Equivalency Framework (IQuEF), is shit), so who’s laughing now, Mr James, eh?! He probably doesn’t remember me, but I’m sure if I reminded him he’d probably look quite sheepish indeed!

Flash-forward four years and I’m an unemployed drop-out, living at home with my parents, writing this blog whilst sipping sparkling water in my local cafe because the cumulative price of a daily flat white is above my budget (top tip: sipping drinks makes them last longer, meaning that you don’t have to buy anything else to stop the staff kicking you out). My budget being an inheritance from part of the value of a house left to my father in the will of a distant relative, prior to which I’d been working a zero-hours contract at a cinema in the centre of town, wiping popcorn and cold nacho cheese from under seats, restocking toilet roll, and deep-cleaning soft-drink nozzles at minimum wage for six months. So, how did I get here? And what happened to that ambitious, optimistic young chap all those years ago?…

Well, believe it or not, I actually graduated with a first from my degree in Southampton (which is a member of the prestigious Russell Group, whatever that means) last year, and was only one of fifteen in my cohort to do so. The course I actually dropped out from was a master’s degree in Exeter in November later that year.

I worked hard at uni and I felt that my grade reflected my effort, but I still wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do with my life after I graduated, so I thought “Why not do this uni thing for one more year?”, and that’s what I did.

For those of you who don’t know, the way the British higher education system works is that, for your undergraduate studies, everyone has the option for their tuition fees to be paid for by a loan from the government, which you only have to pay off after you graduate, and only when you start earning £21,000, and if you don’t pay it off after 30 years it gets written off (which is the ultimate goal). Your maintenance costs (i.e., rent and food, the general cost of living) can also be provided for through a government loan of, when I studied, up to about £8000, depending on your household income. So for me, and for most people that I knew, money wasn’t too much of a concern, and we especially didn’t give too much thought to the “value for money”, or return on investment (ROI) of our degrees. For the first two years at least, the loans that we would eventually have to pay back that covered for our tuition and our cost of living seemed like a distant, ethereal concern of no real consequence. It almost seemed like free money, and we were just happy to be there having a good time! The way that that postgraduate funding works, however, is that there is a fixed available loan of up to about £10,000, which can be used towards whatever you want, whether that be tuition and/or maintenance. In my case, the tuition fee for my course was £7500, and my rent was £6000, and that wasn’t including how much I would need to pay for food and other miscellaneous expenses. Fortunately, however, I had very generous grandparents who were more than willing to subsidise the difference. So off I went to Exeter, population 129,000 and counting, what some refer to as “The Big Apple”, or the capital city of the world (or is that New York? It’s hard to tell sometimes! Either way, they’re both cities that don’t sleep. Mainly because Exeter has a high population of insomniacs, partly correlated with the high concentration of coffee-consuming middle-class students and drunkards).

The degree that I was about to embark on was entitled MSc Policy Analytics, and it seemed like a very employable degree, with lots of numbers involved and promises of exciting, meaningful careers upon graduation. And for £7500 a year I should bloody-well hope so! Anyway, to cut a long story short, it turned out that for £7500 a year, I would be receiving a measly four contact hours a week (i.e., lectures/seminars). This wasn’t helped by the fact that the teaching quality and course structure was, well, a little bit shit. I gave it a month and a half, but in the end I couldn’t silence the screaming voice in my head that was my conscience (don’t worry, I’m not schizophrenic (I don’t think)). I just couldn’t justify perpetuating this false economy any longer. It felt like what I was paying for wasn’t really a quality degree during which I would become an expert in the field, or develop a well-defined and well-evidenced skillset, rather, I felt like I was paying £7500 for a certificate, a certificate that would maintain this industrial charade of telling a potential employer “Look what I did and where I did it! I can do things now, therefore, give me a job”.

In the build up to making this decision I had weighed up the pros and cons, and I by no means took the decision lightly. At this point I had already invested over £5000 in rent, tuition and living costs, and I was tempted by the sunk-cost fallacy to just stick it out and make sure that the money spent wasn’t wasted. I was also tempted by the argument that, in all likelihood, having a master’s degree would be beneficial for my career. Despite these seemingly reasonable arguments, I just couldn’t shake my indignation at the fact that I was paying £7500 for so little in tangible returns. If I was receiving one-on-one tuition, maybe it would have been worth it. If I had had 25-30 hours a week, maybe it would have been worth it. If I’d have received a 12lb gold ingot at the end of it alongside my certificate, maybe it would have been worth it. The fact of the matter, however, was that I was getting none of these. Yes, Exeter was, and still is a prestigious university, but I wasn’t ready to whore myself out on the basis of a reputation, especially when it wasn’t backed up by the actual quality of the degree that it was offering. Besides, I had a first-class with honours (I actually literally have no idea what ‘with honours’ means, I’m not sure if anyone does, but everyone says it, and it sounds good, like I’ve been knighted by the Queen or something (actually, fuck the monarchy)) from a Russell Group university (did I mention that?), that had to count for something, right?!

***

So here we are today. Turns out that dropping out of my master’s degree wasn’t the best career move in the world. Nearly exactly a year since I started my master’s degree/since I dropped out and my career prospects don’t look particularly great. I applied for what seemed like an endless amount of graduate jobs when I came home and was rejected from all of them, rather brutally in most cases. The amount of personalised cover letters that I wrote only to not hear back from the employer makes me quite depressed sometimes when I think about it. The amount of time I spent on applications, bullshitting competency questionnaires, trying to figure out what it was that they wanted me to say doesn’t bear thinking about. Clearly, something about me just wasn’t enough, I wasn’t quite what anyone was looking for.

I of course readily admit that undergraduates do get jobs, they obviously do, but how many of them get jobs in industries that they actually wanted to work in? How many politics students actually go into politics, or any sort of related field? How many students graduate from politics degrees in Britain compared to how many available jobs there are in related fields? I imagine the ratio is probably quite shocking. I’m not saying that the applications that I completed were flawless, far from it, but what I was exasperated at was how little my degree seemed to matter. This was something that I spent the best part of three years working on, and apparently I did pretty well at it, according to the lecturers anyway, at quite a respectable institution. Shouldn’t that count for something? Even a lot? I mean, what do people do in the workplace that’s really that different from what students do at university? Most office jobs are essentially just receiving information, analysing it, and then communicating it in a summarised form to someone else. That’s literally all that students do. Of course I’m being a bit reductive, there is obviously a wide-range of responsibilities in the professional world, but to pretend that any of these roles are beyond the capabilities of most graduates is obscene. By definition most people in employment will be of average intelligence, and their roles will be adjusted accordingly. Of course, I may not have been the best candidate for any of the roles that I applied for, that’s actually probably 100% likely. But if I wasn’t the best candidate, with a first-class degree and with multiple professional work experiences, then what hope do the vast majority of students who studied courses like mine have? I don’t say this to be arrogant, simply to illustrate a point. I was under the illusion for the longest time that getting a good grade at university would help me have a meaningful career. The more that time goes on, however, the less I believe that.

At the end of the day, blame can only be apportioned to one place (except for ourselves obviously): the universities. Universities have become cash-cows, false prophets, much like the Golden Calf that the Israelites worshipped during Moses’ absence up Mount Sinai (I don’t know who Moses is in this analogy. Tony Blair?). They yearly offer thousands of university spaces for non-vocational degrees that are often low-quality and devoid of any real substance, in the full knowledge that most of the students that graduate from these courses won’t go on to do anything with their degree. And to put the cherry on top they charge over £9000 a year for the privilege, and charge over the odds for superficially luxurious student accommodations, just to cash in on the willingness of first-year and international students to pay whatever, because it’s part of the experience.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret going to university. I had a good time, met some good people, and enjoyed studying my degree for the most part. But having a good time is besides the point, and doesn’t justify either the cost of university, or the lack of real value that students derive from their degrees. Do I feel like I really learnt anything from my degree, or developed a concrete skillset or knowledge base? Did my degree make me feel ready for a career? No. Was it worth £9000 a year? Definitely not. Am I just crying sour grapes because I can’t find a job? Probably. But do I think that there’s a lot of truth in what I’m saying? 100%.

Higher education is a false economy when it comes to most degrees and for most students, especially the social sciences and humanities. It’s a house of cards that’s waiting to fall, and in fact one that should be pushed. It’s a cynical industry that exploits the uncertainty of young people who’ve been failed by their primary and secondary education, who don’t know what it means to have a good career in the 21st century, whether it means pursuing your ambitions or simply getting a job, any job, because of the state of the economy and the lack of options. Higher education should focus on teaching students tangible skills, and actually challenge them and give them value for money. There are many courses out there that aren’t challenging at all, that insult both the intelligence of the student and the amount of money that they’re investing, and that ultimately undermine their education and their career prospects. Students should also be encouraged to take time between secondary education and university to really think about what they want to do, to either travel or work, rather than rush into anything.

At the end of the day, I’m all for any student having the opportunity to attend university if they want to, they should have that choice. But at the same time, universities shouldn’t lie to students and sell a degree as a sure-fire way to get a graduate-level job, because the reality clearly tells a different story. Tuition fees should also be adjusted according to the number of contact hours and resources provided, and students should be charged a fair amount for what they receive in return.

Of course, there is no guarantee of university regulation being enforced anytime soon, so the onus is on prospective students to make an informed decision, and make the best decision for themselves. I don’t regret the path that I took, and I especially don’t regret dropping out of my master’s degree, because the following January I met my current girlfriend, and there’s no guarantee whatsoever that I would have met her had circumstances occurred differently, and I plan to spend the rest of my life with her, which is a pretty good end result. However, if I were to advise a student in their final year of secondary education, I would tell them that, unless they are entirely certain of what they want to study, and that they want to study it regardless of the job prospects, or know that the job prospects are excellent, then take at least a year out from education. I would say work in a casual job for six months, abroad if possible, and then travel, but whilst doing so make sure to do something productive like keep a diary and practice writing, learn a language, or any other skill that you fancy pursuing. Travel for as long as possible and live abroad for as long as possible, and develop as many skills as possible. And then afterwards, decide whether you want to go to university. You might discover a new passion and want to study that at university and pursue a career in it, or you might discover a career that doesn’t require a degree, but that is still challenging and has good career progression. Don’t worry about taking time out and being older than everyone else, 1) it doesn’t really matter, and 2) you can just arrange to live with people nearer your own age in your first year. But if you do want to study a degree, and employability is a concern for you, then make sure that you develop some tangible skills, and find out whether they’re desirable in the current economy. I know this is all easier said than done, but university is a big investment of both money and time, and you need to weigh up all of the options available to you very carefully. Don’t feel rushed or pressured to make any decision, after all, the wise man is the one who waits before he acts (or she!). Think of what your passions are, and think closely about what will help you find a career related to that passion.

Don’t be swayed by the fear of missing out. Ultimately, doing what’s best for you is just that, what’s best for you, so be honest about it. If you’re not sure, then wait. Earn some money, become independent, travel, have experiences. Don’t just do a degree because it’ll get you a job either. It’s not too much to ask for a career that gives you purpose or that has meaning. And if that doesn’t materialise immediately, then it’s okay to wait. Personally, I’d rather work in a coffee shop in The Netherlands than be an accountant in Britain, any day.

Fundamentally, the higher education system in Britain (and in most other places) needs to change substantially if it wants to be sustainable for the country and its younger generations. But in the meantime, young people need to make more informed decisions about their futures, and not be mis-sold a false promise, and be made aware of the alternatives to higher education. University isn’t the only way, and it never has been. Pave your own path.

 

 

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