Drinkers’ degree

Stuff in the paper today pondering whether university is worth it. It’s a big issue among my generation, with loads of bitter twentysomething graduates complaining about having to do council temporary work. You sense a real disillusionment. Guys my age didn’t voice a murmur of protest when the government imposed tuition fees; now I’m hearing them say that further education should be discouraged. This when person specs for the highest-paying entry level jobs stipulate ‘Educated to degree level’. There is talk that this may rise to postgrad level.

My father told me that ‘You would be crazy not to go to university.’ He was right. The fact that society provides a breathing space of three years between the machine of school and the machine of work is surely one of the hallmarks of civilisation. Really, thinking about it, it is incredible that the whole university system hasn’t been privatised and turned into some kind of call centre trainee boot camp. Social life aside – good though it is – this is time to think and learn and discover. I emerged from uni a more intelligent, tolerant, and generally a better person that I was when I walked in three years previous.

Unlike many in the Guardian piece, I never thought of university as a ‘golden ticket’ to profitable employment. Myself and my friends were arts and humanities students: we didn’t think employers would be overly impressed with our literature and philosophy degrees, but that was a price we were prepared to pay for spending three years studying something interesting. Your priorities may be different.

Because it is hard out there. The free market’s most absurd delusion is that ‘risk-takers’ and ‘mavericks’ will be rewarded while staid time-servers will be left in the dust. In fact, employers don’t want creative mavericks – they want conscientious plodders with few interests, little life outside work and who are essentially people who will do as they’re told. This is why the job market consists of hundreds of intelligent graduates fighting over the same dozen clerical positions.

This state of affairs is pleasing to commentators on the Right who shout ‘ha ha, three years, fifteen grand in debt and you can’t even get an admin job’. Of course, to these people, any degree that doesn’t have an immediate vocational benefit is a waste of time – not just alternative medicine and golf studies but also literature, history, politics, philosophy. What they hate is the idea of learning for its own sake.

Their complaints of too many people going to uni are shared by many of my generation, who are a lot more conservative than you’d think. Our student paper carried op-ed pieces complaining that universities were being overrun by any scally who could spell his own name. Another big gripe is that we’re producing too many film studies graduates and not enough doctors and engineers.

It’s bollocks, of course. Although Labour massively expanded further education, it also introduced tuition fees which effectively killed the possibility of degree courses for most of the working class. You think students are bourgeois wankers? Well, yes – that’s the point. It’s also why we don’t have a major crisis in recruitment for the police, or in trades and industry. School leavers are attracted to these jobs because they pay well and you don’t need a degree.

In every city there is a conflict between town and gown. You get students in filthy houseshares who know nothing about their local area, don’t respect local residents and have never had to do anything for themselves. You get local scrotes who break into halls of residences and terrorise the freshers. It’s a clash of classes. There’s an argument that it’s best to defer the uni experience until your early twenties – until you can handle yourself better and have more of a grip on who you are.

Loads of students are idiots, but loads are clued up. And thanks to the loans system, plenty of them work – I had two jobs when I was doing my BA and worked six days a week when I was doing my MA. People still moan about the lazy student drinking the sweat of the working man, but the student population can make or break a town’s economy. When I was in Sheffield half the city’s bars closed over the summer. Also, students tend to be less likely to trash the pubs and stab the bouncers.

Go back to the bitter twentysomething graduate in his council temp job, moaning that university should be scaled down because he didn’t get the benefits he expected from it. Well, the world doesn’t owe you a living, even if you have got a two-two from some ex-polytechnic. University is a place of learning and play: if you want to get rich, maybe best try something else.

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