This article was originally published on the New Statesman website, and can be found here.
Another careers talk and the same advice: “Don’t worry too much about finding a job – there’s only so much you can do to prepare”. The group of students sit around, bemused. It’s our seventh talk in a series of meetings with successful employees as part of a student development programme. For each, the details of the story are different. But one over-riding factor is common to all of their advice: each speaker proclaims that they just “fell into a job”.
This puzzles us. Having been lectured for years on the importance of qualifications, extra-curricular activities and work experience, we’d been raised on the belief that every choice we made as a student would have a direct impact on our career. Indeed, I’m still haunted by my secondary school careers talk, which came with the hideously cringe-worthy mantra “fail to prepare and prepare to fail”. So, you might expect that after years of stressing over internships and CVs, we undergraduates would be somewhat relieved to hear that finding a job was easier than the Battle Royale-style struggle we’d come to expect.
But rather than a revelation, a feeling of suspicion and resentment dominated. We shared an envy of a time where graduate’s degrees were widely respected, and sufficient to warrant a job.
Today, attitudes towards degrees are different; 47 per cent of graduates work in non-graduate jobs, while graduate unemployment remains worryingly high. To add to an already bleak outlook, average graduate starting salaries have decreased by 11 per cent in real terms over the past five years, and the burden of tuition fees means that 45 per cent of graduates will never earn enough to pay off their student loans.
Worse still, long before graduation, the race for most students has already begun. Over a third of graduate jobs are filled by students who had previously completed work experience, often unpaid, with the company, while other employers scrutinise application forms for substantial evidence that applicants have held positions of responsibility in university societies. Such intense competition has also changed our impression of academic results – without a 2:1, many employers won’t even consider a job application.
Students are well aware of this. Surveys suggest that we’re working harder (and partying less) than ever before, while research from Warwick University reveals that students are becoming increasingly career-focused. The pressure of finding a career has entirely transformed the way that many view university. It’s not unfamiliar for roles in student societies to be advertised based on the “CV points” that one can garner by taking part. Student newspapers and campaigning groups, once powered by passion and enthusiasm, now seem driven predominately by students’ career ambitions.
Perhaps most troubling is the age from which students are faced with this pressure. One friend I spoke to recounted how his pastimes and interests during secondary school had been “invalidated” by teachers who encouraged their students to “fill every waking moment” with activities that could be referenced on an application form. Indeed, another friend noted that “even at the age of 13, I was doing activities based solely on how they would look on my CV”, which “stifled creativity and caused anxiety”. One undergraduate summarised that such a culture meant students were being “pressured to turn themselves into a product”.
These attitudes towards careers are perhaps most apparent in how students approach studying at university. According to one student, many of her peers had chosen a degree course based purely on graduate employment rates, even though “they admitted that they would’ve preferred to study something else”. This trend is further supported by academic research. A study from King’s College London found evidence of a “consumerist ethos” among students, focusing on the “financial value” of their economic “investment” in a degree.
Many of these attitudes are undoubtedly a result of the distinct political changes that have dominated higher education in recent years. With the raising of tuition fees came a new philosophy; one of marketisation and competition. David Willetts, the Universities Minister, defended degrees as a “good investment”, while other members of the government boasted that the changes meant students were scrutinising whether a degree provided value for money.
Yet we should be wary of such economic language and the fixation with financial benefit accompanying it. The implication that a degree is “worth” investing in because of the associated increase in career earnings neglects a crucial aspect of university, and education more generally.
This might sound very abstract, perhaps even self-indulgent. Yet when speaking to anyone about their university experience, the clichés of “the best days of your life” and “maturing” as a person crop up so consistently that is hard to doubt that previous generations held a less career-dominated view of university. Higher education provides an immense opportunity for intellectual curiosity and self-reflection; a scarce chance to pursue interests regardless of whether they provide financial gain.
Such concepts are hard to quantify, but evidence exists in support of the importance of education for its own sake. Reading fiction, for example, has been shown to help develop empathy – one study even went as far as to demonstrate a relationship between reading habits and tolerance towards the LGBT community. Similarly, university is a hotbed of diverse ideas and is a great opportunity to meet students from an array of different backgrounds. It may be difficult to quantify these aspects of student life, but this isn’t to say that they’re worthless.
And it isn’t just about pretentious students “discovering themselves” – the student body’s freedom from career concerns and economic pressures has traditionally been of enormous benefit to society. Having propelled the feminist and LGBT movements at times when others showed only disinterest, we have much to thank idealistic students for. Similarly, the anti-apartheid campaign was accelerated by the student movement. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that the world would be very different today had it not been for students who quite proudly, and slightly pompously, expressed a lack of concern towards their own career prospects.
It’s often argued that we live in a post-ideological age, that students are selfish and that student activism is dead. Yet, while it’s undoubtedly true that students are disillusioned with politicians (59 per cent of young people don’t plan to vote in the next general election), this anger shouldn’t be mistaken for apathy.
Likewise, the fear and anxiety students share regarding their future shouldn’t be confused with political indifference. You only need to consider the plethora of online student campaigns and e-petitions to realise that the student body still cares about activism and wider society. The difference is that when plagued with anxiety regarding our future, such incessant worry encourages us to structure our student experience with more self-interested, individualistic, activities in mind.
It might seem cynical to suggest that the government’s plan to increase tuition fees and entrap students in debt was to distract a powerful and conscientious group from political campaigning, yet such a claim doesn’t seem unreasonable. Regardless, it’s no surprise that students today are generally less forthcoming to protest considering the huge challenges we face upon graduation.
Maybe I’m idealising the past, or am too ready to believe a rose-tinted view of the university experience of decades ago. Perhaps I’m just scared about the prospect of having to find a job. But the culture of students constantly obsessing over the accumulation of “CV points” has left me thinking that university, the supposed “best days of our life,” should be about something more than preparing for a career.
Nonetheless, as I hear about my friend’s glamorous new internship, I’ll continue to apply to similar programmes, caught up in the same rush to acquire as much career experience as possible. Maybe, at least for the meantime, the self-fulfilling cycle of career anxieties and competition is here to stay.