Week Woman

A Pox on the Patriarchy

The Snobbery of the Dreaming Spires – Why We Need to Get Away From the Idea that University is the Only Path for School-Leavers

- Caroline Criado-Perez

Today BBC’s Woman’s Hour dedicated the whole programme to the challenges facing this year’s graduates. And although, as my boyfriend was so kind as to inform me yesterday, BT 192 online claims I’m aged 36-40 [???], I am one of their number.

But with one small difference.

While part of BT’s estimate is out by more than a decade on my age, I am – or was (sob) – a mature student. And not a ‘mature’ student who took a few extra gap years and started when they were 21 either. When I was 21 I still didn’t know my arse from my elbow and was probably still to be found as a drooling heap on the stairs at Fabric – which is a whole ‘nother article.

No, I was a mature student who had originally tried the traditional route of going straight to university after a year off from school.

The trouble was, at the age of 18, like most 18 year olds, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Oh, I thought I knew, like most bolshy adolescents. But I didn’t. My ‘decision’ to go to university was more like a continuation of the path of least resistance than an active thought process. It was what I was expected to do. And so since I had given my future no real thought, that was what I did. And it should come as no surprise to anyone that, a year after starting a course chosen because I liked my history teacher, at a university I didn’t research, I dropped out.

Now, not all teenagers are as pathologically lacking in direction as I was. In fact, the other eight students in my college all managed to make it through to the end of their degree. But a recent report reveals that 31,755 students did fail to complete their courses last year – a rise of 13% from the year before. Those who have made it through to the end are faced with an increasingly challenging job market; one of the recent graduates on Woman’s Hour claimed that she was being turned down for jobs because she did not have the degree plus two years’ experience that employers were demanding. And at the likely age of 21 or 22, how could she?

One of the most obvious solutions to the growing twin problems of non-completion and a stagnant graduate job market, is to change the bizarre mind-set that has become accepted as gospel over the last decade or so. I am speaking of course, of the idea that university is a box that must be ticked off every person’s list before they can graduate [yes] to ‘real’ life.

I find it baffling that this idea has gained such currency to the extent that it is now almost a sacred cow. Contrary to the Browne Report’s disturbing rhetoric, university should not be seen as an inevitable step along the way to a job where one will make Loadsamoney. Unless there are very specific skills that must be learnt before you can embark upon your chosen career – for example medicine – university should be seen as an end in itself. Those who go to university should go there because they have a passion for their subject, not because they think they will get a better job at the end of it. And employers must stop encouraging this type of behaviour. There is simply no reason someone who has spent the last three years studying English Literature should be any more desirable for a post in, for example, the retail industry, than someone who has spent the last three years working in a bar. Or as a secretary.

We need to get away from the type of snobbery that sees academia as somehow ‘better’ than other routes in life. University is not the only option. It is not even the best option. It is just an option, and one that will only be suitable for some people.

To return to me, (I must be allowed to navel-gaze on my own blog), once I had dropped out and had to go out into the world and start supporting myself, I was faced with a world that didn’t want me. Never mind my straight As at A level, what I needed was a 2.1 from somewhere. Anywhere and in anything, it didn’t matter. I just needed to have that box ticked off and I didn’t.

So I got a part-time job doing data entry at a small online design agency called Propeller. Sounds horrific, dull-as-ditchwater, but I consider it one of the major turning points in my life.

One of the points that was made in the Woman’s Hour programme, was that graduates needed to spend a bit more time researching, and applying for jobs with smaller companies. I cannot recommend this enough. Because I was working for a small company, once I’d got my foot through that data entry door, I was able to rise up the ranks. And rise I did. I learnt an incredible amount during my time at Propeller, mainly because I was almost immediately given increasing amounts of responsibility; this simply would not have happened had I been working for a large company, where it is so much harder to stand out. And the increasing sense of trust that the company placed in me meant that my confidence levels rose with each new responsibility I was given.

Of course, I did leave in the end. I took my English A-level whilst there and left to read for a degree in English Language & Literature at Oxford. But I needn’t have. If I had felt entirely fulfilled by what I was doing, I could have happily continued and probably ended up with a successful career in the digital industry. So why are young people not told this? Why are they pushed towards university when it may end up achieving little more than debt for them?

School-leavers should be encouraged to think laterally about their futures. And it should be pointed out to them that the choices you make when you’re eighteen don’t need to dictate your life forever. As one contributor noted in Woman’s Hour, the myth of a linear career path needs to be dispelled. This cannot be stressed enough. At eighteen, you feel like a year, two years, five years is a lifetime. You feel that waiting that long before you decide whether or not to go to university will be putting your life on hold. And you’ve been told so often that you need a degree to get a job, that it doesn’t occur to you to wait and see if you even want to go to university.

This is a mind-set that needs breaking as much as the one that holds university up as a necessary step towards a job. Neither of these things is true. I firmly believe that, even if I had taken my English A level at school and applied for Oxford then, I would have not got out of it what I did now, because I wouldn’t have realised the great privilege that university offers, and I wouldn’t have been prepared to put the work in. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have got in, and deservedly so, because I wouldn’t really have given my application or the degree a second’s thought.

As a society, we need to move away from seeing our universities as the cash-cows that produce our future financiers. We need to stop seeing them as the sacred-cows of social mobility. If anything, this positioning of universities will be detrimental to social mobility, because it presents anyone who has been failed by their school and therefore cannot achieve a decent degree as somehow a failure. Or someone who just isn’t academic, but has skills in other areas as a failure. Neither of these scenarios need to represent a failure if we stop presenting academia as the only option.

It just isn’t.

3 comments on “The Snobbery of the Dreaming Spires – Why We Need to Get Away From the Idea that University is the Only Path for School-Leavers

  1. glosswitch
    August 5, 2012

    “Those who go to university should go there because they have a passion for their subject, not because they think they will get a better job at the end of it. And employers must stop encouraging this type of behaviour”
    I totally agree with this! I met my partner while I was taking a PhD in German lit – he was writing one in medieval history. He’s since lectured at various UK universities before recently retraining as a primary teacher (I work in publishing). We both love our subjects, but they are precisely the kind of thing that people “like having” – few people will admit to wanting to see the disciplines die off – but the same subjects are also seen as “useless” because they have no immediate economic value. And students are increasingly seeing things this way (and I will admit, as a discipline literary studies can be quite up its own arse, but this is happening in “worthier” subjects too – anything which doesn’t seem immediately vocational. And this is tragic since for so long the UK has really punched above its own weight in the production of serious research).
    This government and the previous Labour one seem completely confused about what universities are for – and what they expect from academics. The CBI repeatedly specifies what calibre of graduates they want, as if universities should be factories churning out human resources for private enterprise to pick and choose – but as my partner and his colleagues have often said, why should academics, subject specialists looking for future researchers, be providing employment training on behalf of Digby Jones and his mates? If that’s what business leaders want, surely they should provide it themselves or pay for it.
    What really disturbs me is the fact that you “need” a degree to get a foot in the door for careers where previously you could start straight from school. Like you, I think ultimately this is really stifling for social mobility and has nothing to do with the development of skills. It’s just box-ticking and students from advantaged backgrounds will always find it easier to tick the box. I don’t know what my children will grow up to want to do – but if they were 18 now, I’d worry about them not going to university as so many doors would be closed on them, but I’d also worry about them going and getting massively in debt for no clear reward.

    • Week Woman
      August 5, 2012

      Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. So many good points! Absolutely agree re past two govts being totally confused re the point of uni – the Browne report made for seriously disturbing reading.

      I find it so depressing that subjects that don’t immediately lead on the clear path to cash are considered somehow lesser – as if money is the most important thing when it’s been repeatedly shown that money doesn’t make us happy – and shouldn’t that be the main aim of our lives?

  2. AliceinWonderland
    July 21, 2012

    C’est ça

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This entry was posted on July 20, 2012 by in Features and tagged , , , , , , , .
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