Things I wish we told people who want to go to university
Doing a BA in Law doesn’t mean you are going to get a job as a lawyer. BA Architecture doesn’t qualify you as an architect. Psychology doesn’t make you qualify as a psychiatrist. You aren’t going to earn more just for doing a degree. Why are we lying to the next generation of students?
Unpopular opinion: Most of the people who do go to university shouldn’t have.
Second unpopular opinion: Most degrees do not develop your vocational skills or employability at all.
I feel such heartbreak for the excited freshers every September. Niave and overjoyed in post-result ecstasy, they flutter in with dreams of Oxbridge style prestige and smart, shiny new friends who ride bikes and wear berets. Something like Hogwarts or The Dead Poet’s Society. By early November, the 17k a year and powerpoint lectures are beginning to grind teeth. By January, there are a few more empty seats in your modules. By third year, most of us wish it was over. I actually enjoy what I study, but I know most students feel deeply mislead about university.
Why am I here? Is a bemused phrase oft used as winter sinks into the term. I don’t want to be a historian. I hate reading about wars and famines. I’m completely unemployable. What the fuck can I do with a Philosophy BA? One girl sobs into her vodka at the university bar. She’s taken a Psychology BA course but she wanted to be a psychiatrist. She’s just been told she needs to train as a doctor and study neuroscience to do that. It’s too late to start over. She’d need different A-Levels. A guy relates, says he wanted to be an architect but now knows he needed to do engineering, not art. The mood is forlorn, grey, dismal. Even for me, BSc Anthropology, I face a pretty dire future in terms of employment. But at least I knew when I applied that I wouldn’t be a qualified professional at the other end in my chosen subject. No one lied to me.
In the old days (1970s,80s) you could do a degree in French or Classical Theology and still land a job as a stockbroker or researcher at the other end. My mum did Economic History. Half of the lawyers I know did history or classics and then simply studied for the bar on the job. Because a degree meant something. So few went to university that it was a mark of achievement. It still is, most people think a degree looks good, but everyone has one. Most jobs won’t even consider you without the standard 2.1 in whatever from wherever. You can do Law or Economics at UCL or LSE and still struggle to get a job in the most junior of roles. The disappointment is palpable.
So we have gone back to the old class system of Daddy-can-give-Hugo-a-job-at-the-bank, and smart working and middle class kids are stuck without any hope of tertiary education lifting them up. Well, there is a chance. You can hope to get lucky in internships and employment. But by and large, way too many people go to university and think the system is still the same. It isn’t. I know 8 people with firsts who are working in Costa or New Look after months of desperate job searching. These aren’t stupid people. But the opportunities and prestige associated with a degree simply do not exist. With over half of my generation having a degree, it is the new A-level. Great, well done. Now what?
So everyone turns to Masters degrees, which are the new BA degrees. People with MAs stand out from everyone who turned away back home in disappointment. Everyone determined to be more does International Relations (standard idk MA) and hopes for more. For some, it works. But as more and more apply, and more and more get in, the more meaningless it becomes and the more we sink into the CV wave.
I have enormous respect for vocational students. Sneered at for doing electrics courses, plumbing, beautician studies and the ‘dumb’ subjects, they came out on top of us all. They have working skills. They are employable, flexible, with more on their CV than two weeks at a publishing firm answering the phone. They have physical skills we simply thought we were ‘above’ at school. Wrong attitude. Academic does not equal elite, or a pay check. Plumbers can earn upwards of 50k, electricians even more. Hairdressers can get on 30k seven years before the average BA Literature grad.
Truth hurts? Yes.
But at least we will have the experience to warn our little siblings and children. That is a bloody expensive piece of paper.