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Scarlett Nation » Education » Students: Get over yourselves

Students: Get over yourselves

Just a quick note to all of the journalists, politicians, activists and academics of the United Kingdom: Not everyone went to university.

I know, that’s quite a big shock, but believe it or not there is more to come, so maybe sit down now.

Okay, not only that, but not everyone wanted, or wants, to go to university. And – no really, brace yourselves – that’s not a bad thing.

Perhaps I’m being patronising, but you can see why I need to check that everyone is aware. I work in an office where most people have been to university, reading news reports written by people who went to university about politicians who went to university and what they’re planning to do about universities. And when I go out for drinks with my co-workers, we all agree on the massive importance of this issue. We discuss university as a fact, as a common understanding, making jokes about revising for finals and using our old halls terminology as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. University is an important part of life, generally. And yet when I have a drink in the village pub, no one give a shit.

I know, shocking, right? But in their defence, they have their own concerns to think about. My brother works, or tries to work, in the building trade, and he and his mates are too busy worrying about whether they’ll have a job next week, how much their wages are going to drop and whether they’re going to be able to pay their mortgages. The young people I know who are just leaving college are too busy trying to find a training programme – any training programme at all – for someone who is hard working and dedicated but simply wasn’t interested in going the academic route. There are no apprenticeships. There is no funding of or recognition of alternative or vocational qualifications. So when I ask why they aren’t outraged at the current policies on higher education, their response can be fairly accurate collated as:

I wasn’t an academic person, but I was damned good at (insert name of trade that you desperately need people to be qualified in and haven’t the first clue how to approach) and I wanted to do well in that job, earn a living and be proud of my profession. Now no one will train me and no one will hire me. The whole world is too busy worrying about a small, middle class section of society having to eventually pay for a further level of education that whole world will respect once they’ve got it. No one is organising a march for me. People are too busy saying how sad it’ll be when people like them miss out on the ‘extracurricular activities – not caring that I’ve never had those opportunities just because I wanted to be a mechanic rather than a recruitment consultant. Excuse me if I don’t cry that someone will – once they’re rich – have to pay more to avoid the apparent hell of being me.

And I’ve been thinking that they have a point.

According to my mother, once apon a time, going to uni was seen as the ultimate achievement and everything else was where everyone else ended up. I believe her, because as far as I can tell, nothing has changed about that. What has changed is that we’re no longer prepared to be the person who ‘ended up’ somewhere. All of us, the masses to the elite, now think that we have a right to get ‘to the top’ to ‘be the best’ to ‘be a success’. But while a broader group of people now – rightfully – want and expect success, the definition of success doesn’t appear to have broadened. Having a child who went to uni is still the by-word for having a child who did well in school. In fact, it’s worse now than it’s ever been, because more people do go to uni, so we think even less of those who don’t. But this mindset is untrue, insulting and damaging to everyone.

I still remember my brother explaining that he didn’t want to work in an office in London to a teacher clearly far less mature than he was. He explained that he was good at working with his hands, was interested in construction and manufacture, that while he had a mathematical brain he was more about learning through doing and a terrible study, that he thought the career would have prospects… after all of which, his teacher told him ‘you can still go to uni and be a carpenter, you know.’ As if going to uni was universally accepted as a necessity. As if the only reason not to go to uni was being prevented from going in some way. But actually, there are plenty of people who don’t want to go to uni, who don’t need to go to uni, and who don’t really care how difficult it is for you to go to uni – why should they, no one appears to care how difficult it is for them to pursue an alternative.

If you get to the end of your school education – be it at 16 or 18 – and you examine your options outside of uni, what do you find? You find that you don’t have a standardised UCAS system and a load of teachers to help you though it, there are no training schemes or apprenticeships available, that you can’t get a student loan, you can’t bolster your CV with societies and sports that someone else will fund and after all of that you’ll have far fewer jobs to choose from. Not because you can’t do them, but because you aren’t qualified, and nowadays there is a difference. You will find a whole array of office jobs demanding you have a degree – any degree – telling you that the actual content of your sociology BA Hons is as useful and as worthless as the content of an Engineering degree, but that any skills or attributes you otherwise had are null and void. And yet, no march for you. No national union speaking to the papers on your behalf. No minister with responsibility for you.

So far, this policy has lead to oversubscribed universities, meaning that the state can’t fund the people who are genuinely suited to university education because it’s collapsing under the weight of people who felt they had no choice but to go. It’s led to a failing building industry that is at the root of a depression. It’s left us with an unemployment bill, a lack of skilled tradespeople and a great deal of resentment. It’s not in anyone’s benefit, student or otherwise.

And I therefore thought I would just draw this to your attention.

Written by

Co-founder and contributor to Scarlett Nation.

Filed under: Education · Tags: , , ,

  • Richard W. Jacquard

    Oh god Steve…You’ve just summed up the entire direction of the modern Conservative party’s policy on tertiary education. However, you’ve done it in a way that neither Mr. Gove nor Mr. Willetts have had the clarity of mind or guts to do.

    I commend you entirely. The one stipulation I have though regards the definition of success; I agree the previous labour government pushed to have 50% of people at 18-19 going to university, however, whilst that has placed a new emphasis in an entirely arbitrary fashion on ‘making it’, whilst university for some was always valued, the majority of financially successful people made it by going into the city and being trained in accountancy, finance, stockbroking and general banking straight from school (or after the army for a some of them). I actually had this debate last night with some political engaged friends, all of whom have degrees. It is still unclear as to whether the labour market actually requires and desires graduates, or whether they’ve had to merely ‘put up and shut up’ due to the post 2000 surge in graduates of any discipline including food studies, flooding the labour pool. I have always been of the rational yet passionate belief as have many in the UK that the focus of our tertiary education model must not be either University or Trades School, but rather those should both be for the select few who have certain skills and bends of mind, rather the focus should and must continue to move toward; everyone in between; those of us who wish to take on strong careers in service based industries; Marketing, Sales, Accountancy, Journalism, Human Resources, Charity work etc. who as they do in places already such as Switzerland compete to get onto ‘white collar’ apprenticeships (forgive me for the use of that term, the collar distinctions have always irked me, but for the moment its an efficient term) apprenticeships offered and tendered by the private and charity sector (there might be some scope for public sector apprenticeships too) which pay a living but low wage, in exchange for part time work during the week and providing/footing the bill for professional and academic (a combination of both depending on what job you’re going for) in house and out of house (colleges, universities and training centres) courses. University would need far less funding, so it could concentrate on lowering fees, providing higher quality teaching with smaller classes and producing market leading research. It would be for those whom have the academic mettle to go into professions such as; academia, the law (although there are multiple non-university routes of entry already for this), medicine, science and engineering. It would remain a preserve of excellence for those particular entry points to the labour market. Now the only argument that will be made against such reforming proposals will be made from the radical left wing which shall be; everyone is entitled to the ‘cultural experience’ of university. I agree entirely, that is why rather than cutting the school leaving age to 16, we should raise it to 19. Strong overall grounding until 16 in GCSE’s. Then once you’re a bit older you do away with A-levels and enter a skills based 3 year program that is more like university with an emphasis on (irrespective of skill) voluntary work and national civic service, and extra curriculars that one opts-into. This way, everyone, truly does get the benefit of the cultural and social experience of university, gives something back to their community (something students are often accused of not doing), gets good pre-work experience and skills. And gets an even better feel for what they would like to be doing. All without the neccessary high state or private cost of university. We then have well funded (by companies and partially by the state) Trade schools for those talented in professions such as; building, plumbing, gardening and landscaping, automotive mechanics, carpentry etc. Which you enter anywhere from 16-19, and continue to build upon your skills. You then receive a living but low wage until you are experienced and qualified (deemed by the guild master and mistresses) enough to either go freelance, or work for a company. Then we have the area where the majority of us will be going for . It is important to point out that the focus of this system is not academia e.g. top; university, middle most people, bottom; trade. Rather the focus is entirely skills and talent lead e.g. most people go into services (as varied as they are), some go into academic and scientific services and some go into trade based services. 19 year olds after their thorough academic, cultural, social and real-world skills grounding go on to compete for service based apprentiships/longer internships which take them on as a ‘trainee insert job title’ one then earns a living but low wage (no debt) gets excellent on the job experience, and is given education and training in pertinent as well as transferrable qualifications. These are the reforms the UK so badly wants and needs. It means a better education, grounding and outcome for all irrespective of background, skills and needs. It means much lower public debt, and much lower personal debt. It means a much more skilled and relevant workforce and therefore a strong growing economy and lower unemployment. But above all it means this;A better, more experienced, less elite and less lip-service based fairer Britain!

  • Myles Nester

    As far as I can tell, every party is loudly promising increased numbers of apprenticships and increased spending on vocational training. But, I see little evidence of this cold cash and hot air actually having any affect on the situation.

    The most important step is to agree a unified, coherent set of vocational qualifications that are respected by their industries and that either the government or businesses are prepared to pay for (even if this is by loans offered on the same favourable terms that students get.)

    I remember being a student and being very angry over top up fees but its only when I left the enclosed and introspective university life that I realised how out of proportion that anger was. My degree was largely self aggrandisement and it offered me massively inflated opportunities later in life. I don’t see the value to society of my learning and I’ve yet to see the societal value of any degrees outside the obvious (medicine, law etc). In contrast my brother’s self funded electrician qualifications were taken at great personal expense, without government help and offered much more limited opportunities.

    That all being said, I kind of assume there is some reason for not having clearly accepted vocational qualifications but I don’t know what it is and why it can’t be overcome.

  • Simon Alvey

    I think that the points that you make are vital and indicative of a lot of what is wrong with a lot of the protest movements that are taking  a lot of the headlines. A large amount of the focus of these protests, and therefore by default a lot of media discussions, are about the plight of graduates who are likely to earn more and, on average, came from more priviliged backgrounds. Whereas the people who have been hurt hardest in this recession/difficult recovery are ignored, this may be because many of the people who are leading the protest movements don’t know many of the people who are in this amount of trouble.

  • TG Clark

    The most interesting part of the article is the teacher’s claim that ‘you can still go to uni and be a carpenter, you know.’

    As someone that attended a good university, failed to capitalise on having an academic degree ending up back to the trade I had as a teenager (roofer), this is certainly not advisable under the new system.

    Why on earth would you put yourself at such a disadvantage, taking out tens of thouasands in loans only to abandon academia and return to building/roofing/carpentry. If you are successful in your trade you end up paying off your fees, unlike your peers who can reinvest the extra money into their business (or have a well earned holiday with it).

    The new Tory system makes the student pay off their education even if their degree made absolutely no contribution to their earning potential, it also encourages reckless borrowing, relaxed attitudes to debt and a financially speculative attitude in anyone that does not have rich parents to pay the fees for them.

    Yes people should pay back into society for the cost of their education, but that should be done through the tax system. If your degree helps you earn a lot (doctor, dentist, lawyer, financial analyst, engineer) then you pay it through higher tax rates for the rich.

    Charging an estimated £83,000 for a degree (after interest) is sociological lunacy unless you see it as a deliberate agenda to tax the aspirations of the working and middle classes in order to give the children of the filthy rich elite a huge life advantage over their peers, through disincentives and debt.

     I agree with you about the sheer numbers of people going to study crap like “leisure and tourism”, “underwear design” and “Harry Potter studies”. Many more people should be given the opportunity to do apprenticeships in real industry, IT and other high tech industries rather than funnelling them through the commodified debt machine that university education has been turned into, however your assertion that this has ” led to a failing building industry that is at the root of a depression” is plain wrong.

    The building industry is wrecked now and was hardly booming before the crash in 2008, check the housebuilding figures. New houses were not being built as a matter of policy, to continue the inflation of the housing market by restricting supply. Prolonged inflation of the housing market is brilliant for the government of the day as it gives millions of voters a smug sense of satisfaction as their assets (homes) multiply in value. The problems with this lunacy are pricing younger generations out of the housing market altogether and the inevitable crash when the banks realise they are sitting on unsustainable debt mountains and refuse to lend any more cash, but then that’s another story……