THE BLOG

Uni-Versal Value? Hardly

07/07/2015 12:55 BST | Updated 04/07/2016 10:59 BST

It smells like summer spirit again. The last few weeks have seen the end of university exams and an upcoming rash of graduation photos of smiling, behatted teenagers and beaming elders followed in short order in August by A Level and GCSE results, each representing an equal chance for the news to show photogenic, carefully diversified teenagers leaping with envelopes. As the neatly paired teenagers announce plans to attend university and seek the best opportunities, underneath, of course, those same teenagers are carefully concealing a glee at leaving home and beginning, what has been sold to them as, the best experience of their lives. I don't intend to dispel that joy, but, rather, to encourage the managing of expectations, as more and more students are graduating with the realisation that university was not the golden ticket that they'd been sold.

It began with the forging of the three core election promises for Labour prior to the 1997 general election. Education, education, education. Tony Blair stood atop a podium and declared that soon 50% of schoolchildren would attend university. It's a noble goal of education for education's sake, but in my view, this glorification of academic education over traditional apprenticeships and work experience has done nothing more than to stigmatise those who do not see a path for themselves in further education and falsely entitle those who do hold degrees with positions which are not allied with that status.

Many of those who graduated this summer will not fall into high-paying positions, particularly if they did not choose subjects which had naturally defined professional routes. Britain's economy and employment structures are largely service-based and public sector based. Over 1 million people now work in UK call centres. The myth of university as some kind of saviour from the menial and service positions does nothing to promote the value that positions like that hold in terms of contribution to economy, denigrates the people within them as somehow inferior and also doesn't reflect our economic needs as a nation.

As a generation, we forget that society has evolved its teaching, healthcare systems and attitudes based on protecting its own investment. Free education and free healthcare came about from a societal need to keep us able and fit for work and for war to expand our economies. We are not gifted that which we have as a moral right but because the effect it entails benefits us all as a collective. Those who sneer at a McJob, and there are many amongst the university populace, can consider the vast amount of money spent in McDonalds every year not to mention the variety of career development schemes that McDonald's offers to its staff. But more than this it is worth thinking of how they help their workforce by providing them with more practical, usable skills than a degree might, yet it is stigmatised and reviled by the young because, through aspirational rhetoric, we have been told we are above the service and work positions that our ancestors took without question for security. Nevertheless, these are still the positions which will be waiting for us when we have retired our Carnage t-shirts, returned the drunkenly stolen traffic cones to their original position and collected the piece of paper that has cost us over £30,000 to obtain.

"That's not fair!" you cry. "I worked and studied for my piece of paper, I deserve better!" As well you might, you did indeed work. The fact is however, that the actual makeup of Britain's economy over many years has changed. The service industry has massively expanded due to aspirational lifestyle advertising throughout culture which has taught us that consumerism is the only meaningful form of expression.

On the other hand, the manufacturing industries our parents remember have all but disappeared. We remain some of the world leaders in science and technology, yet the government consistently fails to make massive investment in these sectors, which during the recession, were some of the few that retained their value. These industries would actually require the university education of young technological, mathematical and scientific minds and justify the enormous push towards university education. However, our woeful representation at maths and sciences shows that we are also failing to make best use of our talent. Figures, time and again, show we are failing to attract students into STEM subjects, particularly women, and school pupils are choosing other, 'easier' subjects. We're also stranding ourselves as an island nation as the popularity of modern languages falls.

The government stated by that by 2020, over 80% of jobs created will be graduate level. Yet, the last few years has found that jobs which previously didn't require a degree to perform can now request a degree as standard because the recruitment pool is so overqualified. The Tesco store graduate scheme endorses you as a manager, a position you may have found yourself in in the same length of time had you entered straight from school. Administrative positions which one could previously do with common sense and patience with photocopiers can now request certificates. I believe this cuts off those without degree level aspirations from doing jobs they could more than adequately fulfil and so, we are also in danger of losing sight of what the purpose of the degree is.

Besides growing graduate unemployment, the actual university experience has become little more than a marketing tool by big companies to sell aspirational products to those with disposable income and no responsibilities. Normally, the scene plays out with more extremely attractive individuals meeting soul mates within seconds of pooling their collective cutlery and sitting down nervously in their kitchens, dressed perfectly and heading out on far-flung adventures with friends with well-placed holiday homes.

University can be a fantastic experience but let's manage those expectations. It's the weight of that all-encompassing pressure to be having the best time of your life with the best people within minutes, whilst far from home and cut off from your normal support networks. This, no doubt, contributes to the statistic that 1 in 4 students will experience mental health problems during their time. It is after all, expecting you to manage a workload different from the schoolwork you're used to whilst living with strangers in a strange place.

I'm not saying to encumbent freshers that university is a worthless experience, rather that the stem of emotional growth comes from being away from your comfort zone and finding out who you are when you are expected to take care of yourself. This is something which thousands of young people who move away from home every year, whether to live with friends or for work also experience, without the debt of a university education. You do not live in a bubble as a student, your bubble is perceived and of your own creation.

So for the freshers who come and do not find the university experience as imagined, do not worry. If you don't like your housemates, if your course isn't quite for you, if people don't share your hobbies, it will all be fine. Branch out, meet everyone, try all of the societies (we've got more here than anywhere!), volunteer, try a new sport or hobby, change your course, start looking at your career choices early so you know how to make university make you well-rounded enough to be the best person to fulfil that role, ahead of the curve.

You are the architect of your own experience and the master of your own direction. In that way, you will be making best use of the experience - not by looking at university as the best time you will ever have or feeling that going to university means that you are owed something after. Life neither begins nor ends with your BA/BSC/LLB/Beng. Enjoy being a student, but be under no illusions of what you're paying for: an education. Making yourself marketable and making your own mark is up to you.