Copyright Mark Ramsay, flickr. Shared under Creative Commons license attribution 2.0 generic. Original image on https://www.flickr.com/photos/neutronboy/9788045101

Why a graduate job should not be the be all and end all of higher education

Image copyright of Mark Ramsay, flickr.

‘I’ve got a Desmond’.

‘A what?’

‘A 2ii (two-two)’

And so might such a conversation go this summer as another wave of graduates hit the job market. But, one’s degree classification alone does not provide enough nuance for an employer to differentiate between candidates apparently.  A recent report, published by the Higher Education Academy, espoused the value of adopting a grade point average approach in providing the kind of subtlety needed to differentiate between two applicants armed with the same degree classification.

Graduate employability is one of the hottest topics within higher education, exercising as it does the minds of the sector and its political masters. The perception that a university degree leads to great financial (and thus personal) reward is one which must arguably become a reality for applicants to avoid questioning the value of a £9000 annual fee. The marketisation of this sector with the removal of the student number control (where universities can recruit freely) has been founded upon the principle that quality of education provision would drive consumer choice. League table positions would inform the customer’s (or student, as they were known) choice, reflective as they were of an institution’s prestige and the supposed doors such a university’s education would open. Suddenly, being sent to Coventry may not be so bad for your long term prospects.

And boy do the universities work to improve their graduate employment statistics. Having been an admissions officer for seven years I have observed the ramping up of efforts to increase the job prospects of their alumni, crucial as this is in attracting students via positive Key Information Sets data. Looking across the sector I see efforts in the areas of study abroad provision (its attractiveness leading to recent increased participation by students who have espoused to me its social, cultural and personal benefits ), the Higher Education Achievement Report and the much darker art of offering graduate internships to alumni. Could that final tactic assist with an institution’s graduate employability stats?

Yet, for me, the pressures placed upon students by this incessant focus upon obtaining a graduate job in a faceless corporation can be overbearing. Students’ wellbeing is an on-going concern with recent research showing their lower sense of happiness relative to the general population.

Having, to no avail, chased that graduate job (propped up by the dole) and trod the most unexpected of ‘career’ paths through soul destroying call centre work and my current ‘public’ sector endeavour only to find the most cliched of callings in journalism, now is the time to reflect on how university benefitted me and offer some observations on work.

And, no, the 9-5 wasn’t a way to make a livin’. For me, there was far too much givin’.

My university memories are certainly not all rose tinted and I have questioned the value of my degree as it was not the ticket to riches I had expected (an expectation born then, as it is now, of a higher education’s advertised impact on your earning power), yet the experience did have lasting positive effects. Steeping myself in Manchester’s musical history with the guiding hands of newly acquired friends who would be right by my side (as life threw up its challenges) to this day was, reflecting, a reason alone for that defining trip up the M6. Fleeing the relative sanctuary of my Chandlers Ford suburban sprawl for a year in Sheffield then three in Manchester created in me a desire to explore new places (the North now a reality in my mind not a concept), understanding others in the process. University cultivated in me a lifelong desire to learn and question the status quo. This though does have unintended consequences in the work place when challenging managerial direction. My interest in and understanding of politics, news and world affairs was developed in conversations with friends studying economics, history and politics.

The fragility of life was an unexpected theme of my first year, from learning of my father’s successful kidney transplant after years of dialysis when some 200 miles away to comforting a new friend who tragically and unexpectedly lost her mother in her first year. Studying in the shadow of Moss Side and Longsight brought with it another realisation – that a tougher life exists. Walking these streets, or skirting them as my fearful self usually did, was informative way beyond reading about the crime and relative poverty that beset them from the safety of my seemingly crime free childhood suburb.

Regret has, over the years, pervaded my thoughts about these formative years. Aside though from wishing I had summoned the courage to ask various girls out, I very much regret not being mature and courageous enough to attend mediation sessions with our Halls’ neighbours over an on-going dispute, leaving that thankless task to my roommate. University also offered a glimpse into the class system with the public school boys living in more expensive digs. One friend who lived in such opulent environs became ours too, only to, at the last minute, choose to live in his second year with his fellow public school types instead. The sense of betrayal lingered for years after.

Such bitterness cannot be healthy. It certainly does not assist when seeking work as a graduate, even though it is an understandable and justifiable emotion emanating from knock back after knock back (the old no experience no job catch 22) and an all too familiar knowledge of nepotism and the doors privilege opens. Your CV might be thicker than War and Peace but where’s that old school tie?

Yet, jumping the often invisible hurdles a class based system throws in the way of a graduate is possible. Being likeable is key. It can be the defining way to differentiate two candidates, certainly more so than the league table position of their alma mater. Drive, ambition and commitment to a profession have contributed greatly to the success of my peers. The value in obtaining work experience at university, as friends did back then, has shown to be important today in an employer’s thinking, likewise personality.

Two such hugely successful friends attended non Russell Group universities. Whilst attending a red brick university offers great rewards they have to be seized, for example engaging in extra curricular activities. Whilst my three years in Manchester boozers were often enjoyable, my CV could have been improved. Hindsight. I came out a directionless linguistics graduate with an increased sense of importance and self-worth, only applying for jobs paying 20k plus (‘I have a degree, don’t you know?’). Entering the job centre and pursuing an ultimately unfulfilled dream to write a film script, I shunned menial work after university. Striving for my degree (and admittedly more time in the union bar) I tossed Sainsbury’s aside and survived on the student loan, an increasingly generous overdraft and various hardship funds. I returned to Sainsbury’s in the summer of 2003, quitting after four days, feeling it was beneath this graduate.

A life of signing on, job application rejections and occasional flirtations with work (the summer of 2004 in Smith’s irking management with my supercilious tone) affected me psychologically, especially as I heard of peers progressing. Two and a half years in a bank call centre from 2005, with policies and procedures designed to suck the last vestiges of humanity from its drone-like work force (people I felt educationally superior to) hardly helped my sense of self worth either.

I had chosen my degree based upon its interest to me but debate continues to the day on whether students should choose those, like my friends did, with better employment prospects.

These are tricky waters to navigate, especially as the kind of material wealth afforded by certain degrees does not necessarily translate into personal satisfaction, as has been discussed online and as an old school friend recently told me.

The irony being that it was only on returning to university at the age of 32 as a mature student, did I find my desired career path. Helping me greatly was a belief that journalism was the direction for me coupled with the kind of drive, ambition and commitment life’s adventures can form.

Image; Copyright Mark Ramsay, flickr. Shared under Creative Commons license attribution 2.0 generic. Original image on https://www.flickr.com/photos/neutronboy/9788045101

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2 thoughts on “Why a graduate job should not be the be all and end all of higher education

  1. Great insight, sir. As I’m currently in the midst of a near three-month-old uphill struggle to try get myself a goddamn job, I’m cursing my creative writing degrees on a daily basis at the moment. I share your sentiment that having a degree is no longer the rainbow with that fabled pot of gold at the end of it, despite colleges, sixth forms, and universities best efforts to have you believe otherwise. The market is now so saturated with graduates, and the tuition fees so extortionate – not to mention living costs – that there needs to be more transparency for 16/17 year olds contemplating going to university whether or not it is financially viable. But even beyond that, I think more transparency is needed for those 16/17 year olds that a degree is not a one-way ticket to a rosy future (that’s how my sixth form sold it to me).

    1. Cheers for the read and compliment Jaime. Best of luck with the job hunt. University seems to be a bit of a factory. Interesting you say how university was sold in a particular way to you, which makes me think transparency may be an idealistic approach given the whole system might crumble if people start debating its outcomes.

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