What an education did for Rita

December 5, 2003

Inspired by Willy Russell's Educating Rita , single parent Sandra Smith enrolled at university. One degree, one diploma and 70 unsuccessful job applications later, she is led to ponder the question, 'what exactly are universities for?'

In Willy Russell's Educating Rita , Rita, a hairdresser from a working-class background who goes to university, discovers that what it has done is to take her away from her working-class roots. Caught in the middle ground between two cultures, Rita becomes neither one thing nor the other: she flounders, frustrated, in an intellectual no-man's-land, alienating both her family and her tutor.

Rita's dilemma, however, is a temporary one and her course in English literature leads ultimately to personal transformation and the offer of a new career in London - the Holy Grail. Or is it? Is it that simple? It certainly seemed so in the early 1980s when the film was made.

In the 20th century the purpose of university was to equip students, regardless of social class and background, with an appropriate education, leading to employment in their chosen field: graduates were absorbed into a workplace that valued their knowledge and broad generic skills. A good university education was the solid foundations on which a career was built.

On the back of this received wisdom, and encouraged by Tony Blair's election mantra in 1997 - "Education! Education! Education!" - I, a part-time data-input clerk from a lower middle-class background, went to university in 1998 after years of single parenthood and the inevitable low-pay, low-status scenario. I knew I'd had little to call "education" from my state schooling. And with 30-odd years still ahead of me in employment I genuinely wanted to improve my prospects, perhaps even achieve my own Holy Grail - economic independence. But in truth I also wanted to study a subject I had come, like Rita, to love -English literature - and maybe even to achieve personal transformation along the way. At least, that is what I thought it was all about.

Well, I got my education. I studied English. But at my university you had to study a range of subjects before you were allowed to specialise. I chose sociology, geography and cultural history. In sociology, I discovered a new way of seeing myself. I discovered a thing called "the sociological imagination"; I wrestled with concepts such as "ideology" and "bureaucracy", and discussed big questions such as "what is the difference between legitimate and illegitimate power?" In fact, because of sociology I have never seen my world in quite the same way again. In geography, I learnt about hydrography and plate tectonics, what eustasy and isostacy are, the intricacies of catastrophism and gradualism, and some other more dubious ideas such as those of the Bishop of Armagh, who calculated that the world was created on a Sunday afternoon sometime towards the end of October 4004BC. In cultural history, I philosophically explored the culture of the natural and human environment and looked at evidence from the Book of Genesis and the writings of the conquistadors to the green movement today, and got an anthropological perspective on life in early modern Engand. The range of study was extensive. At my traditional university a degree meant much more than the subject in which you majored.

Meanwhile, in English I read of Beowulf's battles with Grendel, and Gawain's with a Green Knight; I studied Marvell and Milton and the literature written around the context of the English civil war alongside the works of great thinkers such as Marx and Freud, and modern-day contemporaries such as Derrida, Eagleton and Kristeva. I also learnt grammar (a thing bypassed at school) and linguistics, the history of the English language and how to write a whole lot better.

But it wasn't just that. I also got that life-changing experience. I learnt how it was possible to question received wisdoms and challenge the status quo, how to develop and express an idea; and, gradually, I developed a more active frame of mind. I learnt other practical skills, too, such as how to strategise and prioritise a workload. I was getting all I had sought from university. As Rita says, it was, for the first time in my life, like I was in the land of the living. Rita transforms into Susan in the film, and her reading taste shifts from Harold Robbins to William Blake; she grows from writing "worthless" sentiment to worthy scholarly work, and from giving humorous asides in seminars to asking serious questions about Chekhov. Rita moves away from her working-class roots and enters the knowledge-class, and worries about being neither one nor the other.

But Educating Rita was a piece of fiction with some dodgy characters and a feel-good ending. I knew I had to go much further than Rita. In 2002, my degree in English would not get me a job in London, or anywhere for that matter. So I went back to university and got myself some vocational training on top of my degree, skills relevant to the workplace of the 21st century. My main problem, however, was that I now had to forget everything I had learnt at my traditional university and orientate myself towards the ideologies of a "new" university with close links to business and industry.

In fact, between application and matriculation at that university, the faculty of management I had expected to enter had metamorphosed into a Business School. I was like the proverbial rabbit caught in headlights. I found I now had to forget all about asking questions that challenged the received wisdoms, put creative/lateral thinking behind me, produce report-style work based on marking criteria that was quite alien to me and think about things such as "user-friendly" formats. There was little room for discussion. I was completely thrown at first. I did my best because I knew I had to prepare for the workplace and this was what the workplace required. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the challenge in many ways, not least because it was a positive learning experience, if rather at odds with what went before. I met and worked with some fine people, made another good friend and picked up a range of up-to-date vocational skills - or so I thought. But I now feel torn in two directions: not, like Rita, because of class culture but because of the market forces that play such a big role in university education today. In the workplace of the 21st century, there is no time to find your feet or acquire specialist knowledge. You have to "hit the ground running". In my new university, courses were designed purely with the needs of business and industry in mind and it made me wonder what on earth I had been doing for four years.

So five years and two universities later, followed by several months of unemployment, and approximately 70 unsuccessful job applications (even where GCSEs were all the qualifications needed), I am faced with the question: what is university for? What have I achieved? Am I, in fact, neither one thing nor the other? Then I remember Rita/Susan and wonder what kind of job a former hairdresser-turned-English-literature graduate could have got in London. Could it have been teaching? Not without a teaching diploma. Could it have been publishing? Unlikely without an MSc in publishing studies. I have looked at jobs in housing that require a degree in housing and recently I read in a newspaper that you can do a degree in air conditioning. I wonder to myself what you can possibly find to study for three years in housing and air conditioning, and what kind of "graduate" these courses are producing. But that's another question. What I feel I have achieved is ambiguous, uncertain and has left me wondering where I fit in. So is that really what university is for?

What I have come to realise from my experience at university is that it cannot be just about training for the workplace. There's probably something very wrong with a society that is driven by market forces to turn its back on millennia of knowledge and learning in favour of narrow vocational skills. I think that a workplace that has little room for arts/humanities graduates is missing something vital.

I am far from being an "academic" and my vocational ambitions are realistically moderate, since I am now over 40. But I remain oddly haunted by Rita to this day. At the same time, I need to earn a living with the knowledge and skills I have gained. What my university experience gave me goes far beyond this. It gave me four great years in which I grew as a person, a nationwide network of friends and a far healthier outlook on life than I had before. It also gave me more ordered thought processes, a wider context in which to place many of the challenges of life, access to a body of knowledge and literature to draw on to complement many situations and circumstances, and, most important, an awareness that I still have so much to understand. That will stay with me always. I value all I gained as a student and I would defend my right to it. This is what university is for - it is not just a restricted means to a narrow end.

This is an edited version of Sandra Smith's essay on the theme 'What are universities for?', which won her first prize in the 2003 THES /Palgrave Humanities and Social Sciences writing competition.

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