Student disadvantage does not end with graduation

Universities should offer a safety net for recent graduates forced into menial work by financial circumstances, says Roy Celaire

October 9, 2019
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“You’re not working class. You’re at Oxford, and you went to the LSE.”

This is what someone at my college recently told me, towards the end of my master’s degree in social anthropology at the University of Oxford – which I undertook after doing a master’s in gender studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Yet here I am a few months on, unemployed, penniless and facing possible eviction from my home.

For many, graduating from elite institutions allows them access to the jobs they had always dreamed of. But it is an awful lot easier to realise such dreams if you have a family to support you between the last day of term and your first day at the office. My interlocutor would be in disbelief if they knew that, living entirely independently, I have just had to apply for universal credit. They would be even more staggered to learn that I won’t be able to pay my monthly rent until I receive my first payment in six weeks. Nor am I sure how I will be able to feed myself and pay my bills until then – let alone maintain an internet connection to look for jobs and pay for travel to interviews.

Channel 4 journalist Jon Snow is reported to have told students at Oxford that, whatever their backgrounds, they are now part of the elite. But I do not in any way consider myself to be part of the elite. I am still poor and working class. Having gone to Oxford has not changed my financial or class situation one iota – at least, not yet.

I am not complaining about my unemployment. I’ve had a few rejections so far, but I will just keep going. Yet I feel that it is important to stress to lazy commentators that winning the golden ticket to a top university does not instantly place you in the great glass elevator to the stratosphere.

I had to crowdfund my way through Oxford; I thought the £30,000 I raised would be just enough to last me for the year, but it ran out sooner. So I was already living on thin air even before my final exams, and I was so busy studying for them that I didn’t have time to line up a job.

For the vast majority of students, if they have not already arranged their first step on the career ladder before finishing university, they go back to a rent-free, full-board family home, with wi-fi and laundry service. They have the time to search for a job that truly matches their credentials and aspirations, and they have the means to take the necessary steps to secure it, whether that be doing an unpaid internship or travelling long distances with overnight stays for interviews.

The situation is very different for those like me who are estranged from our families, or are single parents or care leavers. Our bills and rent need to be paid as soon as we finish university. We don’t have the luxury of holding out for the most suitable job however long it takes to be advertised and however drawn out its recruitment process. Our priority – like that of so many other people in this country – has to be to stave off the possibility of homelessness.

So here I am, taking a break from applying for the kind of minimum-wage jobs whose weekly pay schedules offer me the chance to pay my rent before the state benefits arrive. Quite apart from the frustration that this induces in me, the knock-on effect is that I could also be taking away jobs from those who are younger than me and do not have the qualifications to aim any higher. So they are frustrated too.

The same situation occurred after I finished my degree at the LSE, and I ended up working for a supermarket. It is dreary shift work, but you are often too tired to apply for anything better when you get home at midnight. This creates a situation in which your degree gradually loses its currency because employers often favour recent graduates. It is a vicious cycle that disproportionately affects disadvantaged students.

Universities are very concerned about their graduate employment statistics, given their central role in the teaching excellence framework and their own marketing. They also claim to be committed to widening participation, promoting social justice and transforming lives. In all these regards, it behoves them to somehow provide a safety net for those of their students most in need after they finish their degrees. Couldn’t at least a small proportion of the £800 million a year spent by UK universities on widening participation be redirected for this purpose?

Disadvantaged students like me aren’t just less likely to get the grades and to apply to university in the first place. We aren’t just less likely to succeed once we are there, and more likely to drop out. We are also less likely to be able to put our degrees to the best use. Why are universities that are so concerned about the first two of these problems so unconcerned about the third?

Poverty and precariousness do not end with a graduation ceremony. There is a further chasm to cross. And at the moment I can’t see anything that looks like a bridge.

Roy Celaire has just graduated from his master’s in social anthropology at the University of Oxford.

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Reader's comments (4)

"We are also less likely to be able to put our degrees to the best use. Why are universities that are so concerned about the first two of these problems so unconcerned about the third?" - I would be worried if any university was unconcerned about employment outcomes after graduation, especially as closing gaps for disadvantaged students is a core commitment of Access and Participation Plans (admittedly focused on undergraduates). However, rather than providing a financial safety net for those unemployed after graduation which I would argue is a function of the state, should a university not focus spend on improving employability and opportunity while the student is still at the university (industry placements, confidence-building, professional skills, live briefs, internal work experience, inspiring industry speakers and mentors...)? Perhaps vocational universities/ courses lend themselves better to this model.
£30,000 is a middle class average salary. One person can't use for a year? Of course, if you had no any scholarship. If usually everyone ha s some scholarship. So I doubt the money management skills he has?
This is why our placements & careers service is hard at work providing support for final year students right now, in October when they've only just arrived back on campus to start their final year. The wise student - irrespective of how negatively they view themselves in terms of 'class' or advantage - avails themselves of this. I'm talking to my final year tutees about their future plans already too. They are likewise encouraging second year students to start organising their placement now. There are always some students who leave everything to the last minute, but it is not for want of trying to help them get organised on the university's part!
"There are always some students who leave everything to the last minute, but it is not for want of trying to help them get organised on the university's part!"- procrastination is a real problem of many students, who are regretting about this at the end. Also, even you are lazy or don't want to do something, there are a lot of different services like https://www.theodysseyonline.com/5-resources-for-college-students which help students be more efficient.

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