When I was younger, the path through life seemed very clear; I would work hard, go to a decent university, graduate and find a job in my field, allowing me to work my way up the chain so that I would be settled by the time I hit thirty.
Okay, younger me was maybe a little bit naive.
In my parents’ generation, a university degree was outstanding, something to set you apart from the masses. Any job application with an attached bachelor’s would go to the top of the pile. Now? A degree is in no way enough. I told my mum that I was looking at jobs at the end of my degree and she asked what salaries I was looking for. I told her I would take any salary, I don’t care, so long as I’m making enough to pay my bills and getting experience in the field. She was horrified; surely I shouldn’t be accepting any job that would pay me less than £20k a year? Reader, I laughed in her face all the way to my retail job.
A degree just isn’t enough any more. Schools shepherd students towards sixth form and sixth form shepherds students towards universities. Yes, some students manage to escape the flock, leaping free to learn a skill at college or pick up a trade apprenticeship, but even then there can still be stigma around more vocational pathways. Of my graduating class at sixth form, only around five students did not apply for university.
But surely that’s great? University access is a contentious issue, so surely more students aspiring to higher education can only be a good thing?
It’s actually somewhat more complicated than that. While yes, higher education is a great aspiration for many, what it has meant for the students themselves is a competitive job market flooded with people who have taken the exact same path through life as them. When every applicant for every job listing has a degree, you need more than that to set you apart. You need hobbies and recreational activities to prove that you’re well-rounded. You need at least a year of experience in the field already. You need to be friendly with your professors and lecturers so you can get a stellar reference. Oh, and those part time jobs at a shop to keep you afloat while you’re at university? Keep those off your CV. But don’t have any employment gaps.
What about academia? Maybe they’re just trying to force as many people as they can to stay in academia as long as possible. But, as one PhD-holder explains, it is much the same situation; “I’ve got peer-reviewed publications and a book contract – and so has everyone else.”1
My mental health took a real hit at university, to the point where I only left my room for three reasons: to use the bathroom, to go out and buy food and to go to my classes (and even that was difficult). I knew at the time that I was wasting a massive opportunity but there was nothing I could do about it. I sought counselling in my second year, where I was treated as just another student stressed about exams instead of borderline agoraphobic. No help there. My personal tutor only reached out once a semester to encourage me to meet with him, but I couldn’t bring myself to reply; I didn’t want to look someone in the eye and talk about why I was doing nothing in the prime of my academic career. In third year, my careers centre advisor told me in no uncertain terms that I had left it too late. Their only advice was that I just start applying for jobs and hope for the best.
Now, out of university, I speak to a counsellor biweekly, am in a great relationship with a wonderful partner and have even begun to tentatively make friends. Personally, I’m doing great. Professionally, I’m at a massive disadvantage.
I don’t work in the higher education sector but I don’t believe that this is the only way to do things. Mental health services need better funding, especially in universities where eighteen years of pressure crashes down around the ears of the undergraduates. It’s time to stop stigmatising alternate routes into the workforce. Vocational and skill-based qualifications are just as important (if not potentially more so in the current climate) as an undergraduate degree. Apprenticeships should be better funded and a full-time apprenticeship should pay its students at least the national minimum wage.
Don’t tell me that young people are the future and then laugh as you make them fight for scraps. Investing in young people would be transformative, if only we would make the leap.