The great university debate15 August 2012
By Tamira Hamam
SO HERE’S the thing – everyone has a degree these days. Excuse the hyperbole, but I’m sure you get my meaning.
A survey undertaken by the New York Times earlier this year noted that the number of Americans holding bachelor’s degrees was at an all-time high, with over 30% of adults have one – a statistic that should be encouraging, but turns into a depressing fact when paired with simultaneous reports of graduate unemployment being rife.
News stories about graduates being forced to accept lower-skilled jobs because of hard times have left many of us wondering if it’s all really worth it.
We are bombarded every day by new degree disciplines and exciting prospects to study abroad and join new, innovative colleges with the best technology and tutors money can buy. At the same time, we’re hearing that the higher education to career path is becoming more and more unstable, as university fees teeter on extortion.
The average debt of a graduating student in the US in 2011? An eye-watering $23,000. And with university fees set to rise in the UK from around £6,000 to £9,000 for home students, it poses the question: by taking on a degree, are we digging ourselves into a financial grave?
The hard facts
The harsh truth is that something which was once a great achievement has become commonplace. A degree has come to be expected as the norm amongst major employers.
Take, for example, an experience which happened to me after graduating in 2010. It was August, a month or so after my graduation ceremony, and I was signing on to receive jobseeker’s allowance at a benefits office in central Manchester. It was a disheartening experience, especially after graduating with (what I thought was) a very respectable 2:1.
I was signed into what was called a group job-seeking exercise, with four other people. One had been made redundant from a job he had been in for 25 years and two had just come out of prison and were interested in labour work.
Then there was myself, an arts graduate, and another girl, quiet, at the back of the room. Throughout the session, it surfaced that she was a law graduate, who had left university one year earlier with a first class honours degree. I looked at her in a mixture of shock and horror. If a law student – a first class honours law student – hadn’t managed to land a job or, at the very least, an internship with a law firm in Manchester, why were any of us bothering?
One year later, a good friend graduated with a first class honours masters in geography within the top three students of his entire university. His job, four months on after graduating, was cutting keys in a workshop beneath Blackpool tower.
A rite of passage
It’s not for me to say that going to university isn’t valuable. On the contrary, in my experience, it was an important process in my own growth, independence and personal development.
The sense of camaraderie, the feeling when you realise you only have £50 to survive for two weeks, the fifth meal of baked beans on toast for a solid week – these are important things to go through.
University teaches us things about ourselves – managing our time, managing our budget, maintaining a workload and important relationships with people. It can be the defining moment of your character – once you’ve ‘flown the coop’ and left home, what is your identity outside of your family? Those experiences can’t be replaced, and there’s much to be said for those who go into the working world with the ability to be self-sufficient.
So, will we face considerably smaller graduating classes of 2020 and onwards? Less doctors, less university fellows and lecturers? Will there be a more targeted shift in education, with companies and organisations tying directly into degree programs to support and guide the development of students into potential thinkers of tomorrow?
Who knows, but something must change in order to inspire youth to continue onto higher education. Convention and expectation will only hold for so long before young people start questioning the amount of debt they are taking on for the ‘privilege’ of attending university when job security no longer exists.
Something’s gotta give. And when talent is inhibited by falling victim to budgetary limitations, how can innovation and progress continue? Let’s just hope the forward-thinkers of tomorrow haven’t given up on us just yet.
Pic credit: freedigitalphotos.net
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